I have a habit of devouring books a little too readily so in an attempt to slow down I'm make notes about what I like or dislike about the books I read. I'll start with my first exposure to historical fiction, Mantel's Wolf Hall.
Winning a Booker prize for each of the first two volumes in a trilogy is no mean feat, but Hillary Mantel pulled it off. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are volumes one and two of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy -- volume three has yet to be published.
Thomas Cromwell, born in 1485, served King Henry VIII from 1532 to 1540. Wolf Hall covers Cromwell’s rise from lower-class ruffian to Henry's queen-replacement strategist. By the end of its 600 pages, Cromwell is successful: with the creation of a new church (with Henry at its head) and a few tortures and executions along the way, Katherine is gone and Anne is the new queen.
Volume two, the darkly-titled but less violent Bring Up the Bodies, is one-third shorter and is easier to read because the author has addressed Wolf Hall's confusing usage of the word "he." In Wolf Hall the author seems to shift subject, often in mid-paragraph, causing the reader to pause in wonder as to who "he" is. (Keep this in mind: he is almost always Cromwell). In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel replaces "he" with the awkward "he, Cromwell".
Despite its length and odd third-person usage, Wolf Hall is far more satisfying. My copy is peppered with pencil markings, something I can’t say for Bring Up the Bodies. Wolf Hall is funny and trenchant and shocking. Unfortunately Mantel seems to have exhausted her store of observations about life in the time of Henry by the end of the first volume. Plus, Henry's battle with the pope and his minions to annul the marriage provides much of the interesting material in the story of Henry and his wives.
But volume two still has plenty to keep the reader's interest. For example, shortly before her death, Katherine reportedly confides that she may have made a mistake by not acceding to Henry’s desire. Imagine how history would have taken a different path, how many lives would have been saved, from commoners to bishops to members of the court. Henry didn't hesitate to torture and then kill those who opposed his marriage to Anne. How different would England be now had it not broken with Rome?
The books are largely written as discussions between Cromwell and his circle, which includes everyone from King Henry to the cook and the jester. He has friends but he also has enemies. Again and again he is faced with small and large decisions, and Cromwell always decides based on what is best for Henry. Because if Henry is happy, Cromwell is happy.
Both books are wonderful immersions into the life of a historical figure. But if you can only spare the time for one, read Wolf Hall.