Man Booker Prize, Fiction, 2009
Tudor England. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is charged with securing his divorce. Into this atmosphere of distrust comes Thomas Cromwell - a man as ruthlessly ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.
"...as soon as I opened the book I was gripped. I read it almost non-stop. When I did have to put it down, I was full of regret the story was over, a regret I still feel. This is a wonderful and intelligently imagined retelling of a familiar tale from an unfamiliar angle - one that makes the drama unfolding nearly five centuries ago look new again, and shocking again, too. " ( The Times) "The reader, Simon Slater, skilfully adopts contrasting voices and the narrative has an immediacy close to a dramatisation... Provocative, rewarding listening." (The Times)
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Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Phil on 22-01-10
Lose yourself in 16th century England
Well, we all know the story of Henry VIII and his wives, so this book had to deliver something different to keep my attention for 24 hours of listening - and for me, it did. The story is told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, as he progresses from the gutter in Putney to hold high office in the King's court. There is a wealth of historical detail and a constant undercurrent of political intrigue. Occasionally, Hilary Mantel slips into some loose writing and a bit of self indulgence as she wanders from the story but for me, the star of the show is the narrator, Simon Slater. He has the ability to wrap the story around the listener, breathing life into the characters with a wide range of colour and inflexion to go with the different voices and accents he employs. Far from the saintly man portrayed in 'A Man For All Seasons', Thomas More is characterised as an arrogant cynic, and Slater's voice drips with comtempt and disdain as he speaks his words. I'm not usually one for 'literary' works, crime and thrillers being my regular listening, but I have to say this was such a good story, so well told, it had me spellbound all the way through. I usually listen while walking my dogs and their walks got longer as I just wanted to hear a little bit more... Other reviews are mixed, so I guess the only way to really find out if you'll like it is to try it. By the way, Wolf Hall is the home of Jane Seymour, setting up a sequel, I hope!
17 of 17 people found this review helpful
By M on 08-11-12
A worthy challenge.
I wasn’t finding this a particularly easy book to read (or at least to listen to) until I was about halfway through. Then something clicked, and I realised what it was about the writing that felt strange: there’s no plot - or should I say that the plot is so old and well known that the author doesn’t bother with it. The characters are real people from our past and their life stories are history: set in stone, in a thousand textbooks, their fates are already decided, even if it's only us - the readers - that know it. And Hilary Mantel presumes we do, and so, freed from twisting and shaping a plot, she concentrates on their language: their thoughts and inner voices; the words they might have spoken; even their body language is used to take us deep into their lives and motivations, and Hilary Mantel certainly can write. Whether it’s Thomas More intellectualising his inhumanity or a coarse fisherman going on about some prostitutes her writing is fluid and believable.
Thomas Cromwell was unknown to me before I started Wolf Hall but now I’ve got the feeling that he’s going to stay with me as one of the great (non?) fictional historical characters. (I don’t know, or really care, if this is a true portrait of Thomas Cromwell, but the author made a great decision by putting him at the heart of this pivotal moment in history.)
He’s a wonderfully complex man: his fidelity to his friends, family, masters and ideals contrasts with the ruthlessness of his politics; his drive to free England of the shackles of Rome is bizarrely made possible by the whims of his King, and he accepts this and uses it; and most of all, his comfortableness with the commoners combines beautifully with his ability to motivate and manipulate his betters.
The narrator - Simon Slater - gives every character their own distinctive voice and he adds depth, menace or lightness as needed. So, overall, not an easy read but a beautiful and worthy challenge.
29 of 32 people found this review helpful
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By Margaret on 21-07-10
This is an extraordinary book written by an extraordinary writer. I read first the print version, but found myself at times lost in the story telling - now who is speaking - now whose story is being told. This audible version brings the characters to life wonderfully and adds a depth to the story. I give the narrator, Simon Slater, five stars also.
11 of 11 people found this review helpful
By Ian C Robertson on 03-02-13
I have literally just finished listening to this wonderful work, part novel, part history, part biography and wholly a revelation. It is difficult to comprehend how the well traveled road of Henry VIII, the Boylens, Thomas More, Wolsey and others could be given a new perspective. Ms Mantel has done just that, and from the point of view of the apparently least sympathetic character, Thomas Cromwell. Of course we all know how it ends, but that is in part the genius of the narrative. Even knowing that, the story presents itself, in the true sense, as novel. I was not tempted to the dictionary with regularity nor to the history books. Because the history is well know, the essentials don't need to be cross-checked (as they often have to with other historical novels). The incidentals don't press you to be checked (because they illuminate the characters in preference to the events).
I particularly like the seeming transition from the third person to the first person that the author has employed with great skill. Through it, and the simple device of capturing the day to day, she conveys what some other historical novelists miss: the inner character of the historical figures. For example, whereas Thomas More's martyrdom seems like the hallmark of his struggle with Henry, as an event for Cromwell it is much more. Cromwell respects and disrespects More in proportion, but he hates that great thinkers must be sacrificed. Yet sacrifice is the artifice of government. That dilemma for Cromwell is palpable from the narrative. For all that, the language is simple throughout, reflecting a Protestant value true to Cromwell's aspiration. It also reflects with wonderful eloquence a simpler time when there was a right and a wrong (although they could change overnight at the monarch's whim); England in the 1530s. I was tempted to keep reading, moving to the second in the trilogy at once. I have resisted only to make that reading even more auspicious.
As to the performance by Simon Slater, I think him the perfect selection to read this work. His voices were attuned to each character, particularly Cromwell and More. The stretch narrative was conveyed at a lovely pace. I am pleased to see he has also read a version of the sequel. It is on my Wish List.
In my opinion, Ms Mantel deserved the Man-Booker Prize for this work and readers of good books deserve to have books of this quality win prestigious awards.
7 of 7 people found this review helpful