I have to admit, I was really reluctant to try the Wolf Hall series. Though I’d heard nothing but good things from friends, fantastic fellow bloggers and colleagues, the first chapter is so brutally heavy going that I didn’t think I could make it through the first book, let alone the densely written stonker of a series. Still, after I was recommended it for the millionth time, I had a brainwave to try out the audiobook. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from my recent foray into audiobooks, it’s that they’re terrific for tackling tomes. And whaddya know?! I fell hook line and sinker for this series.
After biting the inside of my cheek through the torturous first chapter, I was off. Taken far beyond the bounds of my imagining, deep into the heart of court life in Tudor England. It wasn’t so much that I could picture the setting- I was there body and soul. The richly depicted world, stitched together with exquisitely precise descriptions fully transported me. I felt like I walked alongside Thomas Cromwell, following to where his intelligent eye snagged. Picking over every detail for intrigue that would later become relevant.
For this is a story that is layered in a way that beguiles. Through the narrative, you are given hints and told to suspect every cast member- and yet it is always a surprise to find what is lurking in the round each corner. It is a story that builds on its tension and intricacies with every turn of the page, blotting out your expectations. It is, in short, a masterpiece.
Characterisation is where this series shines. I love how well Mantel paints psychological portraits with such subtle strokes. Each line on Cromwell draws us deeper into his psyche, illuminating his intelligence and strength, yet also the shadows of his vulnerability, humanity and even guilt.
And in some ways her portrayal of Anne Boleyn is even better. It’s an intriguing depiction- not quite like any other version I have seen before (and yet isn’t that always going to be the case for such an enigmatic figure as Anne?) Personally I really enjoyed this manipulative Anne, with her bursts of narcissistic rage, who has met her match in Cromwell. Strangely more captivating still is her transformation in Bring Up the Bodies as she tightens the noose around her own neck (spoiler alert 😉). While she sees the danger, she only digs her grave deeper, acting like a guilty woman. It’s almost as if she wrote the perfect script for her own demise. For me, it is the perfect depiction of a rise and fall.
Of course, so much of Cromwell’s own story hinges on this. He must continue to rise- or he will fall. It is an inevitability of a self-made man. And it is woven into the plot. Mantel is frequently careful with her words, giving the slightest hints of foreshadowing. Blink and you will miss them. We sense the tragedies waiting before they hit. We know that everything could turn on a dime. And that is precisely what happens in Bring Up the Bodies.
Every piece of the puzzle slots into place. The carefully laid out chess board marches to its bloody conclusion. It is sudden and entirely predictable- as all the best stories should be. It was acted out, just as Cromwell planned.
Nonetheless, there is a greater hand guiding the players. And that is the well-known fate of Cromwell, where the story winds up the story in The Mirror and the Light. Here, the languid pace slows even more, which makes sense as the stage lights dim. And yet, while I think it is an overall good conclusion, the time taken to tell it was not entirely necessary. It does not help that without Anne, the series suffers. But, I would not miss this ending- if nothing other than to feed my addiction. There is a sense that it circles back round to the start and that everything was leading to this point.
Wolf Hall dug its claws into me and recalled my passion for historical fiction. Beneath history there is a wealth of stories and Mantel is magnificent at telling them.
Rating: 4.5 bananas
So, have you read some or all of the Wolf Hall trilogy? What did you think of this beast of series? Let me know in the comments!