Nothing on this blog for six weeks: too busy reading books to write about them. So first up in the catch-up series: the utterly wonderful Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. An absolutely extraordinary book, which I finished several months ago by the pool at a villa near Ronda, in Andalusia, but have only recently had back in my grasp having lent it to someone at work (who managed to do what I did not: get it wet!).
Despite extending to 800 pages, Wolf Hall has – honestly – not a single redundant word. It cracks along at a brilliant pace, telling the story of the dramatic ascent of Thomas Cromwell, the commoner who became the most powerful man in England outside the royal family itself, as right-hand man and most trusted advisor to King Henry VIII.
What I particularly loved about the novel apart from its style – everything is written in the present tense, which because it’s expertly pulled off, creates a great freshness and immediacy – was how authentic and intimate a portrayal it manages of a powerful, intelligent, driven and cunning man. Mantel’s Cromwell defines ‘enigmatic’: even though the reader sees into so many of his thoughts, s/he is really left no wiser than the courtiers, noblemen and servants that people the narrative.
For one of the most powerful weapons in Cromwell’s armoury is the way he is able to create fear and foreboding in the space created in the minds of his rivals (and indeed his friends) by the fact that so much of his past is kept deliberately opaque (at one point he openly discusses the importance of this as a strategy; unfortunately I can’t track down the passage).
Cromwell is also a seriously sophisticated diplomat and influencer: he deploys linguistic ability, gifts (often baked delicacies) and favours owed to get his way; the threat of violence is only ever that: a threat. This paragraph, chosen more-or-less at random, conveys a good deal of the style and substance of this compelling, deeply rewarding book:
When Cranmer comes to the house, he [Cromwell] feeds him the delicate meat of the roe deer; they take supper privately, and he gets his story from him, slowly, slowly and easily. He asks the doctor where he comes from, and when he says, nowhere you know, he says, try me, I’ve been to most places.