There has been a lot of discussion about Wolf Hall both before and after it was selected in the long list for this years Man Booker Prize. I was interested in reading the book as soon as I heard it was going to be released but then I saw the size of it and I became a little put off! The debate that has followed, the reviews (both positive and not so great) from fellow bloggers and my genuine interest in this period of history drew me back in though and I ended up starting the book a little over a week ago.
I have to say I am very, very impressed! This is my first Mantel read but if this is indicative of her writing style in general and her connection to her characters and the story she creates I will be reading others. That's not to say I didn't have some issues in my reading of Wolf Hall - but for the most part I loved the book and really didn't want it to end.
Wolf Hall focuses on the period in Tudor England when King Henry VIII is tiring of his first wife, Queen Katherine, and is setting his sights on the delectable Anne Boleyn. The protagonist of the novel is Thomas Cromwell, a common man who has risen to the ranks of advisor to the King and who plays an influential role in the shaping of England and the monarchy at this time.
Before reading this I felt that I had a fairly good (but still basic) level of knowledge about this period in history and the key players in it - I think this was needed for me to be able to connect with the story in Wolf Hall. Even though Mantel includes a list of characters at the start of the book (all 5 pages of them!) I think I would have struggled to follow along without knowing at least the basic gist. Having said that, I don't think this book is only for those with some knowledge of this time period - Mantel builds her characters and their motives really well - by the end of it you do feel that you know each of the characters as individuals in their own right. No mean feat for the author considering how many people she is following!
Cromwell was not really someone I had thought about in the context of this story before - even though I can see the important role he played I guess I always thought there were far more juicy and interesting people to focus on. I really enjoyed reading about Cromwell's thoughts and actions - albeit fictionalised - in Wolf Hall. I felt connected to the time period and what it might have been like for a man in his position - connected to the King but never really one of the upper classes. The family life of Cromwell is portrayed with sensitivity, humour and reality - I felt I had a sense of where he had come from and why he was the person he was.
At 650 pages this is definitely a big read (which is why I am including it in my Chunkster Challenge 2009!) and I did feel it started to drag a little in the middle section. But this was redeemed by the last section of the book - and I thought the ending was perfect! Left me wanting more and yet I still felt it was concluded beautifully.
All in all a really enjoyable and stimulating read - recommended if you have even the slightest interest in this period of English history.