Wolf Hall’s protagonist is Thomas Cromwell: blacksmith’s son, cloth merchant, adviser to Cardinal Wolsley and eventually King Henry’s yes man. Set over the course of a few years (with a taster backstory) as Henry tries to divorce Catherine of Aragon and separate from Rome’s primacy, we follow Cromwell as he becomes the formidable player at court.
Each section of the book drives towards a significant moment in the story, expertly building the narrative to its culmination, and displaying exquisite plotting that maintains a level of pace and action throughout the 650 pages.
Though Cromwell is a man of few words, who becomes slightly more verbose as his staff increases, the author builds up a rich sense of a man with integrity, plain sense, confidence and elusive motivations. We follow Cromwell as he works his influence behind the scenes to achieve the King’s desire, learning something of his character in his exchanges both in a domestic setting with his family, and in court with numerous dignitaries. Yet for all the detail offered about his life and his actions, the man remains a mystery – an unknowable force that defies understanding, that no-one is sure of. It’s this unsurety, this fear of the unknown, that seems to be Cromwell’s greatest power.
Wolf Hall is engrossing for the picture it paints about the intricacies of Henry’s split from Rome, and the agency Cromwell exerts upon cracking the problem of fulfilling the monarch’s apparently conflicting desires. It’s an extraordinarily well-written novel, including both compelling characters and a fascinating historical perspective. I would unreservedly recommend it. This is quite an accolade from an historical fiction virgin! It deserves its place on the shortlist, and narrowly misses out on being my favourite of the shortlisted books.