I put Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel on my TBR Pile Challenge list because, well, it’s been on my TBR list and then shelf since it came out! It always sounded a little scary to me, somehow, and it took the challenge — and finding the audio version at my library — to get me to take the plunge. I enjoyed the first book so much that I immediately borrowed the audiobook of the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. The two books are so tightly connected that I’ll talk about them together.
Note: If you somehow don’t know the story of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and you don’t want to before you read the book, maybe skip this review. I’m assuming most people know how it ends, so I won’t be too careful about potential spoilers!
About the Books:
When we first meet Thomas Cromwell, he is a boy, and his abusive drunk of a father is in the process of kicking him to within an inch of his life. Realizing the only way to escape his father’s wrath is to leave, Thomas sets off to find his own way in the wider world.
And what a life he builds for himself. After traveling Europe, he ends up as a lawyer in service to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey is charged with getting King Henry VIII a divorce from his first wife, Catherine, who has failed to produce a male heir. A clever, savvy man like Cromwell, though, is fated for greater things still, and his trajectory places him at King Henry’s elbow.
Together, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies tell Cromwell’s story from childhood through the entire Anne Boleyn affair.
I was mildly terrified of two things when I donned my headphones and hit “play” on my iPod for the first time:
- That I wouldn’t be able to keep all the people named Thomas straight, and
- That Mantel’s use of “he” to mean Cromwell even if it should logically refer to someone else would leave me confused and frustrated.
Turns out neither was as bad as I’d feared! The first wasn’t much of a problem because Mantel rarely uses characters’ first names, referring to them primarily by last (or at least full) name. I’d probably still have gotten a bit confused, because there are a LOT of characters with all kinds of titles, and they keep moving around. But as I’ll explain in a moment, the reader for Wolf Hall was great with character voices, so by the time I got to Bring Up the Bodies, I was familiar enough with most of the characters to make it through.
The second would have driven me nutty in print. As it was, even with the aforementioned great reader, it still took me way too long to get used to the fact that “he” could mean the gentleman just mentioned, or — more likely — Thomas Cromwell. Eventually I learned to relax when I heard the ambiguous pronoun, to keep myself from jumping to conclusions until context made it clear what was going on. Maybe it was actually good for me, heh.
I really liked Thomas Cromwell. I’m not sure whether you’re supposed to like him, but I couldn’t help it. He’s clever and calculating, for sure, and he looks out for himself. The pictures of his domestic life, though, are so charming that they offset his chilly professional demeanor a bit. His household seems welcoming, and he gathers stray boys around him into a sort of family and trains them up like sons. He’s a gloriously multifaceted character, one I didn’t at all mind spending many hours with.
It’s interesting, too, to go through the events leading up to Anne Boleyn’s execution in such detail and from a different point of view. Various stars rise and fall, constellations of people change, loyalties and allegiances shift at the slightest breeze. There’s no mystery about what’s going on; with Cromwell as our eyes, we see each step, each political machination, each misstep along the way. I’ve always enjoyed this kind of careful historical fiction, and this pair of novels is no exception. Yes, it got a little tedious once in a while, when everything was going smoothly and the story seemed to wander or stall a bit. But honestly, it just gave a fuller picture of the time, I think.
Regarding the audio versions: This might be the one and only time you’ll ever hear me say that I preferred another narrator over Simon Vance. Simon Slater, who read Wolf Hall, sounded just like how I’d imagine Cromwell. He was a little gruff, a little hardened. He did a spectacular job creating distinct voices for every major character, which helped immensely as more and more Thomases started popping up. He also read the narration in a voice very similar to Cromwell’s, which helped me orient myself when Mantel used “he” to refer to Cromwell, even if he hadn’t been mentioned in pages.
Simon Vance, on the other hand, read Bring Up the Bodies. Don’t get me wrong — I adore Simon Vance. But I don’t think he was right for this book. For whatever reason, he didn’t use the same range of character voices (though I know he’s capable of it), and his narration sounded less like his Thomas Cromwell voice and more like his Simon-Vance-narrates-a-story voice. I’m not sure whether the print version of Bring Up the Bodies switched to using “He, Cromwell,” instead of just “he” a lot more often or if they added that for the audio production. It did help clear up the confusion (extra helpful because of how Vance narrated), but it also got a little repetitive after a while.
Honestly? If I hadn’t heard Simon Slater’s version, Simon Vance’s would’ve been great. Who’ll read for the third book?? I guess I’ll have to wait and see!
The Verdict: Enjoyable
I’m glad I finally knocked this sucker off my list, and I’m glad I went the audio route. If you’re a fan of audiobooks and you’ve been meaning to get to Wolf Hall, give it a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised. I’ll be doing the third and final installment of Cromwell’s story on audio when it comes out!
What books scared you for a long time but weren’t actually that bad when you gave them a try?