The Short Version: The story of Thomas Cromwell, real-life figure from the reign of Henry VIII. We get a brief glimpse of his life as a boy and then jump forward to his time with Cardinal Wolsey and his eventual rise to Henry’s chief advisor. Meanwhile, in England, Henry is working to fracture the church, Anne Boleyn is working her way into his heart and bed, and most of the English court is playing a double game while they wait to see how this will all turn out.
The Review: Reading a massive book like this takes something out of you. It’s been long enough (oy, barely two weeks) since I finished a book that I rather forget what it’s like, finishing. This novel doesn’t entirely feel finished, of course. The last fifty pages or so don’t, exactly, wrap anything up. They just tidily finish things like any of the other sections of this book – but Cromwell’s story is far from over. But I understand why Mantel opted to end the book roughly where she did. We see Thomas More, who (I believe) the book puts forth as Cromwell’s nemesis of sorts, meet his death and Cromwell safely (for the time being) placed at the very top of the kingdom. This is a conclusion, in its own right, and so one must be content with it. That, and I was about ready to be finished with this book.
It is a consuming book in more ways than just sheer word/page count, too. The images of these characters are stamped into modern consciousness thanks to The Tudors and so, as a result, you have to deal with Henry looking suspiciously like Jonathan Rhys-Meyers… but that fades, eventually, and you find that Ms. Mantel has wrapped you up into this story almost while you weren’t looking. It plays out at a sometimes glacial pace – but that’s rather the point. This is almost a biography, really. It is a literary biography, you might say. As a result, she doesn’t make any effort to hide the fact that – as in all lives – there are points that drag on a bit too long, that are a bit mundane, that are a bit lackluster, and so on. The book is never boring – the prose is too well-crafted for that – but it is rather consuming. Much like a life is expected to be.
The story, of course, is the one we all know. Again, thanks to The Tudors, people other than AP Euro students (or unreformed former AP Euro students, like yours truly) know who Thomas Cromwell is – but that show was like Soap Opera England. This is the real stuff. The real politics, the nittygritty. Mantel does a nice job at keeping it grounded – even when Cromwell is sleeping with his dead wife’s sister (not as weird as it sounds, I promise), it’s never really a part of the narrative. It is just an interesting addendum to Cromwell’s very busy life. And what a life it was: he’s the first Josh Lyman, really. He doesn’t want to be The Guy, he wants to be the guy The Guy counts on. And he is. Really fascinating politicking and maneuvering – stuff that some people might find boring but I find fascinating. Henry’s push to get divorced and remarried takes up a large amount of this politicking, of course, but the ramifications… Wolsey’s fall from grace, fractured alliances across Europe, the common people listening to false prophets – all of those things come into play and Cromwell handles them adroitly.
Of course, his story doesn’t end well. We know this (from history) – but Mantel is smart enough to leave him at the top. She’s apparently writing another book, a sequel, that will detail the rest of his life – but at this moment, one doesn’t need it. A fully realized and expansive novel like this one (I must point you to the massive list of characters – by no means complete, either – that nearly every review comments on) should be reward enough. I felt, quite often, like I was reading history – in the way that the best historical films make you feel, briefly, like you’re seeing history.
Rating: 5 out of 5. The only flaw, if it could be called that, in this book is that it does get a bit long in the tooth at times. The ending, especially, seemed somewhat out of sync with the rest of the novel. But that’s irrelevant. The smart writing – this is not a book for the average person, oh no – and the delicately crafted 1520s/30s England that appears fully formed out of this novel are beautiful, wondrous, and rare qualities to find in any book. Find a big chunk of time and allow yourself to devote it to this book. The rewards are rich and sumptuous, I promise.