I like to use my summer vacation to catch up on reading big books. What I mean by big books is literally big books, books fat enough to use as doorstops. Of course, the big books have also captured my attention due to glowing reviews and the promise of a challenging read. This summer I thought I would get ready for a new book – Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel– by reading the prequel, Wolf Hall.
Wolf Hall weighs in at a mere 532 pages of detailed historical fiction based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, King Henry VIII’s right hand man. Cromwell is a fascinating character, a self-made man who rose from obscurity to become one of the most powerful men in Tudor England. His rise to power is directly related to his usefulness to Henry VIII in divorcing Katharine of Aragon and allowing his marriage to Anne Boleyn. Politics and religion are intricately enmeshed in Henry’s time, and his dissolution of England’s bonds to the Church have far reaching repercussions for the future of the country. If you think politics are down and dirty now, you need to read about politics in Henry’s court.
Mantel’s perspective on this turbulent period of English history is quite different from others I have read as she has chosen to view it through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell and other “common” folk. Cromwell’s relationship with Sir Thomas More is particularly interesting and eye opening; More is considered a martyr by the Catholic Church and yet tortured and executed men and women he deemed heretics. Mantel’s characters are so well defined and her writing so skillful that I felt as if I were in Tudor England. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker prize in 2009, and I think Hilary Mantel richly deserves the award.
I have long been interested in the Tudor period, especially in Anne Boleyn. My only disappointment in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is in her characterization of Anne Boleyn as a cold-hearted schemer. I have always seen Anne more as a victim of circumstances than as an evil plotting woman whose only desire is to become queen. But I still look forward to reading the sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, which continues the story I know so well. Anne has not given birth to a living son, and Henry now wishes to be rid of her and move on to another wife who can give him a son so Cromwell must bring about her downfall. I am looking forward to reading about how Cromwell engineers the trap that brings about Anne’s tragic demise and how Cromwell’s own fate is affected by his machinations.
My name is still on the waiting list for Bring Up the Bodies, so for now I’ll have to be satisfied with reading another big book, Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness, sequel to last year’s A Discovery of Witches. It’s only 584 pages long – I better get busy reading.