[Mantel] has reversed the appeal of these towering rivals of the Tudor period, that fecund breeding ground of British historical fiction as the American Civil War is of ours … Cromwell is the picaresque hero of the novel — tolerant, passionate, intellectually inquisitive, humane. We follow his winding quest in vivid present-tense flashbacks, drawn up from his own prodigious memory … Although Mantel adopts none of the archaic fustian of so many historical novels — the capital letters, the antique turns of phrase — her book feels firmly fixed in the 16th century … Thomas Cromwell remains a controversial and mysterious figure. Mantel has filled in the blanks plausibly, brilliantly. Wolf Hall has epic scale but lyric texture. Its 500-plus pages turn quickly, winged and falconlike.
Ms. Mantel takes an extremely contemporary approach to Cromwell by appreciating his toughness, his keen political instincts, his financial acumen and his intimate knowledge of the workings of power. Almost unimaginable, in the midst of Henry’s impetuousness, Anne’s ambition and More’s self-righteous condescension, Cromwell emerges as the most sympathetic member of the wolf pack that populates Wolf Hall … Her book’s main characters are scorchingly well rendered. And their sharp-clawed machinations are presented with nonstop verve in a book that can compress a wealth of incisiveness into a very few well-chosen words … Deft and diabolical as they are, Ms. Mantel’s slyly malicious turns of phrase would count for little more than banter if they could not succinctly capture the important struggles that have set her characters to talking. But she is able to place Cromwell on plausibly familiar terms with royalty and on a fair moral footing with More, that paragon of self-sacrifice.
Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is a startling achievement, a brilliant historical novel focused on the rise to power of a figure exceedingly unlikely, on the face of things, to arouse any sympathy at all … Cromwell’s actual life story is, in its way, a somberly fascinating one. But it is not the story that Hilary Mantel has chosen to relate. The Cromwell of Wolf Hall has some of the qualities that his enemies feared and detested—toughness, wiliness, worldliness—but as Mantel depicts them, they are qualities in the service of survival, success, and even a measure of decency in a cruel and indecent world … This is a novel too in which nothing is wasted, and nothing completely disappears.
Hilary Mantel has created a novel both fresh and finely wrought: a brilliant portrait of a society in the throes of disorienting change, anchored by a penetrating character study of Henry's formidable advisor, Thomas Cromwell … Mantel's choice of protagonist signals her intelligence and artistic ambition...Historians have long acknowledged Cromwell as the administrative genius who transformed a medieval fiefdom into a modern nation-state, but only an exceedingly bold novelist could envision this odyssey as the stuff of gripping fiction … The present-tense narrative thrusts us into history, not as a stately procession of inevitable events, but a dynamic process shaped by an unstable agglomeration of individual wills, mass movements and random chance … Wolf Hall is uncompromising and unsentimental, though alert readers will detect an underlying strain of gruff tenderness.
Mantel’s ability to pick out vivid scenes from sources and give them life within her fiction is quite exceptional … Repeatedly, Wolf Hall suggests that no one, apart possibly from Cromwell, can really know what will turn out to be important. Its chief running joke is that people and things which come to be of immense historical significance are within the novel unobserved and peripheral … As with insignificant people, so with insignificant things: objects that are lost or ignored in Wolf Hall generally come to matter … The pleasures offered by Wolf Hall are substantial and deep: that finely turned humour enables well-known pictures of the period to come to life and speak in curious accents.
[Mantel’s] interest is in the question of good and evil as it applies to people who wield great power. That means anguish, exultation, deals, spies, decapitations, and fabulous clothes … Mantel’s characters do not speak sixteenth-century English. She has created for them an idiom that combines a certain archaism with vigorous modern English. It works perfectly. And how urbane her people are! … Mantel doesn’t stint. She always goes for color, richness, music. She has read Shakespeare closely. One also hears the accents of the young James Joyce. As for the portentousness, the book is full of such effects, and they are entirely appropriate to the magnificent and dangerous world that is being described.
Mantel's version of these events is far more subtle and intricate than anything imagined by the writers of The Tudors. She is at her best when turning her penetrating novelistic gaze to history … Mantel's abilities to channel the life and lexicon of the past are nothing short of astonishing. She burrows down through the historical record to uncover the tiniest, most telling details, evoking the minutiae of history as vividly as its grand sweep. The dialogue is so convincing that she seems to have been, in another life, a stenographer taking notes in the taverns and palaces of Tudor England.
[Mantel] wades into the dark currents of 16th-century English politics to sculpt a drama and a protagonist with a surprisingly contemporary feel … Mantel does an excellent job of rendering both the tedium and the tension surrounding Henry’s long stand-off with the church. Lives and reputations are at stake – as is nothing less than the future of England – and we are never allowed to forget this … She builds Cromwell with layers of detail accrued from multiple viewpoints. We see him jousting with ambassadors, gently teasing an imprisoned princess, and worrying about the character of his son.
Wolf Hall is both a physical place and a metaphor. It refers to the home of the Seymour family, whose daughter Jane would have her own place of prominence in history, and yet it stands for the book's entire population as well: These courtiers resemble a pack of wolves, eyeing each other warily, killing when hungry … Mantel has a remarkable ability to make history breathe, to make characters we know from history class and the movies color-flecked and real … Mantel does not spare us the darkness of the era. Cromwell is haunted by the loss of his wife and, later, his young daughters to plague — ‘the sweat,’ which it seems no one can outrun.
Mantel makes her characters very strange indeed. Instead of bringing the past to us, her writing, brilliant and black, launches us disconcertingly into the past. We are space-time travelers landed on an alien world … Cromwell is the novel’s central character, drawn with an extraordinary mix of astute complexity and powerful simplicity … Mantel gives rich detail. She is able to powerfully advance the main line of the story, while conducting fascinating side excursions … History is a feast whose various and vital excitements and intrigues make the book a long and complex pleasure. A feast held under a lowering darkness that makes the book a desolation.
Hilary Mantel's magnificent Booker Prize-winning novel reads the way a great film races - a breathtaking, brainy, sexy, political thriller … While Wolf Hall conveys heinous period realities – plague, slaughter, machinations – in Mantel's trademark gelid style, it is also tender. It owns – complicatedly – a moral heart … Dialogue sings and crackles, in language that is at once lyrical, decorous and slangily modern. That modernness may constitute a fudging of sorts, but may as defensibly be a translation across time, waking readers to depths of character in fresh, yet recognizable ways … [Cromwell’s] brilliant company, and the life-size pageant of his world, give such sustained pleasure that we are greedy for particulars of a story whose outcome, in theory, we already know.