Mantel's big, multi-faceted, densely populated novel centers on and is seen from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son who rose from exceedingly humble beginnings to become the most powerful man in England, except, of course, for Henry VIII, whom he served.
When I was in my early teens, I read historical novels almost exclusively. And at least half of these novels were set in Tudor England -- beginning with Ann of a Thousand Days -- a sympathetic (heartbreaking) portrayal of Ann Boleyn. So this is familiar ground for me, as far as the broad outlines of 'what happened.'
But Wolf Hall is a real departure from all those romantic depictions, usually accompanied by an omniscient narrative voice that ensures the reader is learning a little history along with enjoying the story. On the contrary, Mantel plops us straight into Thomas Cromwell's point of view and we learn as he does and through his eyes and ears, just what sort of world this is.
At first I found it like waking up in another time or place -- with no sign posts. In fact, the first few pages were hard going -- who are these people and why are there so many Thomases? But the immediacy of the experience and the sensory surround effect began to enthrall me and I kept reading. As familiar names began to appear -- Cardinal Wolsey, Great Harry himself, Queen Catherine, Ann Boleyn, Thomas More -- it all fell into place and I raced through the pages, eager to see how the Divorce was handled.
If I'd taken a few moments before beginning the book to remind myself of the main points of Thomas Cromwell's history, I wouldn't have been quite so lost at first.Of course I'll read it again to savor more thoroughly the masterful writing. I expect I'll enjoy it even more. It is truly a remarkable piece of writing -- I can't think of anything comparable.
Go HERE for Joan Acocella's review of Wolf Hall in The New Yorker. It does contain 'spoilers' but only if you're not already somewhat familiar with the history of Henry VIII.