Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Macmillan Audio
Narrated by Simon Slater
Length: 24 hours 19 minutes

Thomas Cromwell. For anyone living in the time of Henry VIII, his name alone would conjure up bitterness, anger and sometimes fear. But as Hilary Mantel reinvents Cromwell, she gives us the story of a boy who not only ascended to heights that he couldn’t believe, but who was also one of the biggest pawns that King Henry and Anne Boleyn played against the Church, the people of England, and each other. Abused as a boy by his destitute father, Thomas leaves England at a young age and finds himself seeking out war in France as a mercenary. As he travels around Europe, he makes friends in high places, eventually returning to England as a cloth merchant. It’s here that he makes an advantageous marriage and becomes the right hand man to Cardinal Wolsey, a man whom he much admires and who eventually dies at the hand of the King. When King Henry seeks to place Cromwell into an advantageous position in the court, Cromwell has no choice but to be the man the King wants. With his silver tongue, and alliances from overseas, Cromwell is forced to make the English people and the Catholic church accept King Henry’s pleas for a divorce from Katherine, and make a marriage to Anne Boleyn. But around Cromwell are men who are lethal to him and would love nothing more than to see him fail and fall. As Cromwell advances higher and higher into the upper echelons of the English court, he makes plenty of friends, all vying for their moment with the king. Will Cromwell deliver where Cardinal Wolsey has failed, and can he navigate the treacherous waters of the gentry and churchmen alike? In this remarkable and spellbinding tale, Mantel delivers her readers a Cromwell that is unexpected: one who is remarkably wise yet tragically placed in a nest of hungry vipers ready to strike.

I bought this book in hardcover the day it came out, in 2009, hoping that I could make time to read it immediately. Well, that just wasn’t in the cards for me! When I initially decided to go for it, I picked up the print version, which I had very little success with. I’m not sure if it was a concentration problem or if it was just the difficulty of the text. Then I decided to go with the audio version, and that made all the difference. The narrator, Simon Slater, was perfectly matched to this book. His British accent and cadence of speech left me anticipating what would come next time and time again. His voice was remarkably droll when narrating Thomas More and perfectly pitched when speaking as Cromwell. He even had success with the female voices in the story. In my opinion, audio is the best way to go with this book. Slater makes the story come alive through his narration.

History tells us that Thomas Cromwell was not a very nice man: a little ambiguous, very self-promoting and alarmingly cruel at times. But Mantel doesn’t play him that way towards her audience. The Cromwell between these pages is smart yet not arrogant, and has the good sense to cultivate friendships among whatever group he associates with. He is caring and compassionate, yet also has the power to be ruthless when the King demands it. This is really not a story about the King or his scandalous remarriage, but of the consequences that serving the King have on Cromwell and the ways in which he maintains his dignity while still doing the things he must.

When his beloved mentor Cardinal Wolsey begins his descent into disgrace, Cromwell refuses to distance himself from him, even though his reputation could, and in fact does, become tarnished. There were sections in the beginning of the book that showed the effortless and nonchalant amiability between the two. Throughout the book, Wolsey lives on through Cromwell, and in his behavior, he is emulating the man to a large degree but with much better results, as history has shown. Cromwell’s direct and commanding presence and speech give him the ear of the King very quickly, and though he doesn’t wish it, a large number of noblemen seek him out for advice.

In this tale, Anne is as awful as she has ever been, and Cromwell becomes her pet, doing her bidding to save his own hide. Some would say this was cowardice, but Mantel writes Cromwell with such feeling, and his private opinions about his service to the Queen-to-be are so wry, that I came to see it only as a strategic device and not an alliance of any kind. Anne and Henry have a very odd relationship, almost courting one another through Cromwell, who is the King’s emissary and Anne’s go-between.

I must also mention that the writing in this book was brilliant. Mantel knows exactly how to structure scene, place and dialogue to the most effective degree. I found that this was a book that I could listen to for hours and never become bored or overwhelmed. Her prose is elegant and smooth, and goes down easily. With Slater guiding me through this audio version, I felt as if I was being carefully caressed with the tale of a man who became the King’s confidant and the up-and-coming Queen’s pawn through her sly machinations.

Would I recommend this book to you? Well, there are really two answers to this question. If you are familiar with the history surrounding King Henry VIII, then a resounding yes would be my answer, but if you’re not the type to get caught up in the Tudor trappings, this might be a laborious read for you. I happen to love anything that has to do with the Tudors, so this was an easy choice for me, but those readers who dislike the political mayhem of England during Henry’s reign are best off passing this one up. Recommended with caveats.

27 comments:

Harvee Lau said...

Tudor history is fascinating to me and Wolf Hall is definitely on my list of books to look for. Very nice review.

Beth F said...

I've been wanting to listen to this one so I'd be prepared to get into the second book. I'm not sure I'm familiar with the narrator, so good to know that he's perfectly matched.

bermudaonion said...

I think I fall into the group that would find this to be laborious. I don't enjoy that time period and think I'm probably not smart enough for this book. I knew you'd love it!

Kathy said...

Heather, I had exactly your experience with the hard cover book. I am excited that you liked the audio version - I'm off to reserve at the library!
Great review today.

Jennifer @ Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I loved the writing but didn't like the story. I'm so impressed that you listened to the audio!

Audra said...

This has long been on my TBR and I want to read it while everyone is still buzzing -- I'm intrigued by the audio version -- it makes me wish I had a long road trip ahead of me so I could give it a listen!

Buried In Print said...

I read a good chunk of this one, shortly after it was published, but then lost track, only because it was too heavy to carry around, so maybe the audio would solve it for me too. Great idea!

Jenners said...

So interesting that this book worked for you on audio but not in print. A good narrator can really make a difference!!

geosi said...

I have long been awaiting your review on this. have not yet read it but i hope to. Thanks.

Stacy at The Novel Life said...

I've gone back and forth about this one - would I really enjoy it or not. It's good to know that this one is much better in audio rather than print...I will keep that in mind when I get around to reading this one! Thanks for the great review!

Meghan said...

I'm always intrigued by the differences between audio and print. I found this one difficult to get into in print first, and would have imagined that listening to it would have only made that worse. It's great that you enjoyed it! I've been pondering reading the next one but haven't brought myself to do so just yet.

Suko said...

Excellent review (no surprise)! While I am not terribly knowledgeable about King Henry VIII, I'm enchanted by your review and the book's brilliant writing.

Brooke said...

I will eventually read these books! I swear! I adore the Tudors and all that goes with their delicious scandalous-ness. Sounds like the audio might be the way to go!

Lisa said...

I picked this one up a few months ago - and still haven't been able to work up the courage to give it a shot. I may just have to give it a go on audio. Definitely sounds like you had a great experience with it.

Marg said...

I have been meaning to read this for a long time. One of the criticisms I have heard is that the lack of pronouns make it difficult to know who is speaking, so I was wondering if this was an issue in the audiobook.

Man of la Book said...

I have had this book on my nook for at least a year but haven't managed to read it yet. However, I am familiar with the history of Henry VIII so I'll probably enjoy this book.

If you're interested in a wonderful non-fiction book about Henry VIII I'd highly recommend The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir/

Ti said...

I could not get through this book, what I had to comment on you running out to get the hard copy. I do that all the time and then never get to it. To add insult to injury... the PB comes out and I nearly always like that cover better.

Literary Feline said...

I'm not one who especially likes reading historical fiction about the royalty, but I've been wanting to read this book for awhile now. I am glad you enjoyed the book so much!

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

I've been meaning to get to this one forever too! I don't think the audio is for me because I can't listen to long audios but I do want to get to the print sometime.

Jenny said...

I'm crushed the book made Anne awful -- that's why I haven't read it. That and how it is incredibly super long. And because I didn't care for the other Hilary Mantel book I've read. Mostly because I love Anne Boleyn though, and hate to see her name slandered.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I think I would have a hard time with this one, especially on audio. I think i would be lost. I did enjoy your review of the book though --I feel less guilty for not reading it now, as you always do such a thorough job that I feel like I've read the book after reading your reviews. Thanks:)

Biblibio said...

I'm not sure I agree with you. Wolf Hall is one of my all-time favorite books so I may not be entirely objective here, but I really don't think one has to be especially familiar with Tudor history to understand or appreciate it. Even taking it at face value, any reader can easily appreciate the intricacies of the "plotting" (were the story pure fiction), or the depth of the characters as Mantel describes them, or the absolutely genius writing. It certainly helps to know a bit going into it, but I recommend this one to almost every reader, regardless their background knowledge of Tudor history.

kay - Infinite Shelf said...

I've been intrigued by this one, but still can't decide whether I want to read it or not. I love the Tudors and it seems well written, but every time I took a look at it at the bookstore or the library, I couldn't keep my attention on it. I'm wondering if audio would be a better way for me?

Athira said...

Now I'm conflicted! I have no knowledge, nothing whatsoever about the Tudors. But I've been meaning to read this one. I'm glad that you loved it, and maybe I will someday read it too.

Aarti said...

Great review, Heather! I have wondered how this book would be in audiobook format, if the pronouns would become confusing even more quickly or if the flow of the language would make it easier to tell.

Darlene said...

As you know I love the Tudor period. I just requested this again from the library and can't wait to listen to it.

nomadreader said...

I've started this book more than once and cannot imagine getting through it on audio! I've vowed to read it by the end of the year, however, and am saving it for when I have more time to devote to it. I was most successful reading it in long doses (i.e. one section in one sitting.)

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