The first two books in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell Trilogy (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) are tight, as dealers say of good meth on Breaking Bad. Tight, and page-turning though you already know the sad fate of Anne Boleyn, H.M.S. Titanic to the gargantuan iceberg of Henry the VIII. But the characters claw off the page. The writing is superb.
These books are a throw-a-turkey-leg-over-your-shoulder feast down to the bone-crack. I’m drooling for third and final: The Mirror and the Light (expected in 2015, like, 730 days from now, but who’s counting?) although of course I know the ending. “The tale is in the telling” of Cromwell’s downfall.
Thanks to Mantel, for three weeks I inhabited the 16th century. I felt the larded breath of Cromwell’s abusive father. I put my hands on the wet miserable stone of the Tower of London. I swiveled my head like a snake, like a lady-in-waiting, like Anne herself (for whom I rooted, desperately). I was cinched in skirts as tight as Queen Catherine’s. I smelled sweetmeats and straw, knew the sound of gold clinking in a calfskin purse, and made my way like young Cromwell, carefully, intelligently, around Venice learning statecraft and the art of backing up honeyed words with a powerful left hook.
Very few books embed you so completely in an alternate universe (in this case, the alternate universe of The Past, and the disturbing labyrinth of Henry the VIII’s mind). I felt I was there. Like a gonzo journalist. And all the more so because I heard it, Wolf Hall expertly read by Simon Slater. You can’t spend a better 24 hours than in the company of his magnificent Wolsey. I’ve since caught myself with great interest asking of some modern situation, Now what would Cardinal Wolsey do?
That’s how not to repeat history.
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