Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

The trouble with history is that we can never really know how
accurate it is.  And this goes
double for historical fiction.  The
answer for Hilary Mantel in her Tudor novel Wolf
Hall
?  Give the narrative to
the smartest character in the room, and see what happens.  Thomas Cromwell told stories for a
living.  He wasn’t a playwright,
but a lawyer.  And he was lawyer to
the King of England, charged with doing whatever was necessary to give the king
what he wanted, even if that was getting rid of the king’s old wife, to make
room for a new one.  But the story
doesn’t end at the king’s palace.

Wolf Hall succeeds as a novel because
Mantel puts herself in the position of her protagonist and chooses to tell—not
historical truths, as we like to imagine they exist—but the truths of human
nature.  She does not tell
Cromwell’s story as part of a sweeping history, but in small, mostly domestic
moments in time, the way a life is lived. 
Mantel’s strength as a historical novelist is in admitting that we can
never truly know what happened, who said what, how she reacted, and she revels in
that knowledge.

Through
Cromwell, Mantel narrates in a Modernist, present-tense, stream-of-consciousness
style that defies sweeping generalizations and revisionary histories, revealing
the fractious, uncertain nature of the time.  The Cromwell of Wolf
Hall
is pragmatic, hopeful, yet often pessimistic, and to put the narrative
in the hands of a character who can’t possibly know how history will play out
draws the reader’s attention to those small moments between characters, the
human stories within this larger-than-life historical period.  This is a novel of control, which both
Mantel and Cromwell exercise with confidence and brisk efficiency.

Anyone
with an interest in Tudor or early-modern English history should of course
check out this novel.  Those who
enjoy period fantasy with subtle characterization and dubious heroism or
villainy will find this novel a compelling read.  Wolf Hall is a
triumph of language and understated storytelling, without a word out of place,
which will appeal to anyone who reads and enjoys modernist literature a la Kate
Atkinson, Sarah Waters or Emma Donoghue.