Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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Please note: This review is not written by David Bainbridge.

Wolf Hall: A Novel
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Mantel, Hilary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 614 Pages - 10/13/2009 (Publication Date) - Henry Holt and Co. (Publisher)

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is a highly acclaimed historical novel that is ostensibly about the rise of Thomas Cromwell to a position of power in the court of King Henry VIII. However, in reality, this book is just a meandering mess of convoluted sentences and confusing timelines that fails to truly capture the essence of the time period or its characters.

From the very beginning of the book, readers are forced to wade through pages upon pages of impenetrable prose that is more concerned with showcasing the author’s supposed mastery of language than actually telling a cohesive story. Mantel’s tendency towards long, run-on sentences populated with obscure vocabulary words might be seen as impressive by some, but it quickly becomes tiresome and alienating for many readers. The confusing morass of alternating tenses, one moment present-tense, the next past, is not cute or clever, it’s just plain laughable.

In addition to its bloated writing, the book also suffers from an unnecessary amount of unnecessary tangents and subplots that do little to advance the central narrative. Characters come and go, their motivations and loyalties remaining frustratingly vague, and the overall effect is that of a book that is both confusing and forgettable.

Furthermore, the book’s inaccurate depiction of Thomas Cromwell is a source of frustration for those who are familiar with the historical figure. Rather than presenting a nuanced portrayal of a complex and powerful man, Cromwell is reduced to a simple villain whose actions are never fully explored or explained.

In the end, Wolf Hall is a book that is more concerned with showcasing the author’s literary chops than telling a compelling story. Its convoluted prose and meandering narrative make it a chore to read, and its characters never ring true.

It’s a shame that such a promising concept was so poorly executed.

Historical Inaccuracies…

One of the biggest flaws of Wolf Hall is the way in which it misrepresents the historical figures it portrays.

For example, Thomas Cromwell is portrayed in the book as a one-dimensional villain, with little exploration of his motivations or personal life. This is a far cry from the complex and multifaceted figure that historians have come to understand Cromwell to be.

Additionally, the book often strays from historical accuracy in its portrayal of events and characters. For example, key historical figures such as Anne Boleyn are reduced to broad caricatures, their actions and motivations often fictionalized for dramatic effect. Many of the events depicted in the book are also altered or reimagined to suit the author’s narrative needs, further distancing the book from historical accuracy.

Bring Up the Bodies: A Novel (Wolf Hall Series Book 2)
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Mantel, Hilary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 434 Pages - 05/08/2012 (Publication Date) - Henry Holt and Co. (Publisher)

Perhaps the most egregious example of historical inaccuracy in Wolf Hall, however, comes from the book’s treatment of religion. The Reformation and the role of the Catholic Church in England are complex and nuanced topics, but rather than exploring these topics with any level of depth or feeling, the book relies on crude characterizations of religious figures and a simplified portrayal of the religious tensions of the time.

Overall, Wolf Hall is a book that trades historical accuracy for dramatic flair. While the book may be enjoyable as a work of fiction, readers looking for a historically accurate depiction of 16th century England are likely to come away very disappointed.

Literary community should be ashamed

The fact that this book has won prestigious literary awards and has been so widely celebrated only adds insult to injury. It’s as if the literary community is applauding complexity for complexity’s sake, rather than rewarding novels that are truly compelling and impactful. Wolf Hall is neither.

While literary taste is subjective, it is difficult to understand how the same literary community that praises authors such as Jane Austen, William Faulkner, Ken Follett and Wilbur Smith could heap such praise upon Wolf Hall. The book’s convoluted prose and confusing plot structure fail to live up to the standards of great literature, often confusing and exasperating readers rather than engaging them.

One could argue that the book’s frequent allusions to literary and historical works, and its use of obscure vocabulary words, have been mistaken for mastery of language. However, this approach can be seen as little more than an exercise in pretension. The constant use of obfuscating language and meandering narrative make it difficult for anyone to track the story or engage with the characters, and this comes at the expense of the reader’s enjoyment.

Furthermore, the book’s celebration by the literary community over more accessible, well-written works is disheartening, as it suggests that the qualities that make literature great have been supplanted by obscurity and complexity. By praising works such as Wolf Hall, critics and award committees place greater emphasis on the technicalities of writing than the enjoyment of the reader, and this ultimately leads to literature that serves itself more than the reader.

In conclusion, the literary community’s enthusiastic reception of Wolf Hall may be seen as more of an exercise in intellectual elitism than appreciation for great literature. While there is always room for experimentation and new approaches to writing, the book’s technical excesses come at the expense of the humanity and impact that makes literature great.

The Mirror & the Light: A Novel (Wolf Hall Trilogy Book 3)
  • Amazon Kindle Edition
  • Mantel, Hilary (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 913 Pages - 03/10/2020 (Publication Date) - Henry Holt and Co. (Publisher)

Final thoughts…

As someone who loves historical fiction, I was incredibly disappointed with Wolf Hall.

While I can appreciate the need for attention to detail and accuracy, Mantel’s insistence on using overly complex language and tangential plotlines left me feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. I found it nearly impossible to engage with the story or its characters, and curse myself for not having the courage to just quit suffering through this abomination of a novel.

Wolf Hall is a literary masterpiece that manages to bore its readers to death with its convoluted plot and lackluster characters. Despite being set in a fascinating historical era, the novel fails to capitalize on any of the potential richness of the Tudor era, instead delivering a tedious and uninspired story that feels like a slog. The characters are not only uninteresting but also confusingly portrayed, leaving readers feeling like they’re trying to navigate a maze with no end in sight. Thomas Cromwell may be a historical figure of great importance, but in this book, he’s reduced to a vapid, unconvincing protagonist who fails to inspire any empathy or interest.

Overall, Wolf Hall is a dull, forgettable novel that fails to live up to the absurd hype. Save yourself the trouble and skip it.

I cannot in good conscience recommend Wolf Hall to anyone looking for an engaging historical read.


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1 thought on “Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel”

  1. The pacing is horrendously slow and can be difficult to follow at times. The constant use of pronouns and lack of clear identifiers make it hard to distinguish who is being spoken about. While the writing is undeniably excellent, the slow pacing and confusing structure may not be for every reader.

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