The Short Version: The second installment in Mantel’s narrative biographical fiction trilogy following the life of Thomas Cromwell. Over the span of approximately a year, we see Henry VIII go from happily married to his Anne… to doubting her, cursing her, wooing Jane Seymour, and eventually to Anne’s bloody end. And all the while, Cromwell orchestrates it all with a deft and intelligent touch.
The Short Version: Wolf Hall remains a strong and distinct entry into my literary canon. It’s unlike anything else I’ve read – not quite fiction, not quite history. It’s the sort of book that gets the average person reading about ye olden times but it also doesn’t appear to be at all watered down for the masses. Its success clearly clamored for a sequel – and I’m thrilled that we get two. If Mantel succeeds with The Mirror and The Light, she’ll’ve put to paper one of the most impressive trilogies ever – bar none.
Because this novel is, while clearly a second-in-series, a different beast from its predecessor. I was concerned that it was shorter, despite having (at times) found Wolf Hall‘s length to be a bit tiring – because that novel encompassed so much so brilliantly. But Mantel doesn’t waste any time with summary here: you can pick this novel up, certainly, without having read the first – but you’ll be a bit lost. Characters flit in and flit out, with whom the experienced reader already has an understanding, and you may wonder “who the hell is Call-Me and is he somehow related to this Wriothesley guy?” if you aren’t well primed from the get-go. But also, we’re not looking at a wide swath of Cromwell’s life here: we’re looking at the span of a year but even more accurately a very crucial six weeks in the spring of 1536.
The narrowed focus makes the novel fly by but it also makes you almost a little uneasy. We know how the story ends, of course – no need for spoiler warnings so long as you’ve taken at least a cursory European History class – and so the dramatic tension is not in “what will happen” but in “how do we get there”. Astonishingly, Mantel manages to actually pull off the former question as well. As Anne mounts the scaffold at the end of the novel and Cromwell mentions believing even then that there’d be some pardon… you wonder, too, if there might be. There is a tension – and then in a beautifully simple moment, the ending we knew was coming flies by. There’s a sense of reality about the whole thing: that the story could end in any number of ways, not just the way we know it to’ve happened in history. To me, that marks quite an accomplishment in terms of the writing.
More impressive, though, is the inexorable tightening of the noose. Cromwell sets up the dominoes and knocks them down again – all in the name of the King, of course – with this incredible Machiavellian precision… It is a wonder to me that we look to the Italian gentleman for a handbook on ruling when it is, by Mantel’s reckoning, Cromwell who was the more intelligent and more revolutionary political figure. Much like a well shot film – I’m thinking Hitchcock at his best or the opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds – it slowly sucks the breath out of you, pulling you forward in your chair until suddenly you realize that there is no air in your lungs and you’re on the very edge of your seat and your eyes are wide and unblinking and you just. can’t. bear. to. wait. because whatever comes next is going to, oh my, oh golly, is it, will she, but the, !
Do you know the feeling I’m talking about? That combination of joy and shock as the pieces click neatly into place and spring the trap – the trap that you watched put into place but you still couldn’t bear to not watch as it snaps shut on the (sometimes unsuspecting) prey? That’s this whole book. My favorite moment, perhaps, comes as Cromwell begins slowly but surely – for reasons both personal and political – to go after four specific gentlemen. The coincidence that it should be these four who are chiefly guilty of tupping Anne is a bit too great – and Cromwell knows it – but he does not care. And as the trap shuts on each of them, Mantel dispatches them in Cromwell’s mind with their name and the appendage that they pulled during the horrid panto mocking the late Cardinal Wolsey. It is as cold and calculated as an ice sculpture – and it is just as beautiful.
Rating: 5+ out of 5. I find it quite something that Mantel is able to make this book simultaneously stand on its own – be judged on its own courtroom drama merits – and also to be so inextricably tied to what came before and what comes after. You finish this book with a twinge (just a twinge) of nerves for our ‘hero’. Again, we know what happens – we know it doesn’t end well for him. But that doesn’t stop you from wondering, again, if it’ll all turn out better for him. Mantel’s note at the end of the novel, that this is a version of what could’ve happened – one that takes liberties with people and times and perhaps sacrifices a bit of accuracy on the altar of really-freaking-amazing-storytelling. And whether or not she’s done that on purpose, in order to lull you into that same slight sense of “well…. maybe….” that Cromwell had as Anne lost her head…. well, who can say? But I am waiting for The Mirror and The Light more eagerly than I have waited for any book in a very, very long time.