I’ve had my fare share of trials and tribulations with audiobooks. I must have started at least 10 that I’ve decided to stop listening to within the first few chapters. Typically the issue was either a narrator whose voice really grated on my nerves, or a story that was not captivating enough in audiobook format. I typically listen to audiobooks on my morning commute, so they have to be really engaging or I’ll end up getting distracted by traffic or my thoughts on the day ahead.
Enter Wolf Hall. From the first few sentences I knew I had found my audiobook holy grail. Apparently, what really works for me is an amazing British actor narrating a tale full of passion, subterfuge, politics and inner turmoil that reminded me of the TV series The Tudors (which I loved) only honestly much much better. Where The Tudors feels superficial and glamorized, Wolf Hall is gritty and relatable despite its scope. Mantel’s novel has also been turned into a TV mini-series itself – starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry VIII – but after watching half of an episode a year or so ago, it just didn’t capture my attention. I may have to give it another shot after how much I loved this book.
If you’ve been struggling to find an audiobook that will hold your attention, I would recommend that you give Wolf Hall a try.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Narrated by Simon Slater (Audiobook Review)
Publication Date: April 30th 2009
Publisher: Fourth Estate
(Audiobook published by Macmillan Audio)
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
England in the 1520s is a heartbeat from disaster. If the king dies without a male heir, the country could be destroyed by civil war. Henry VIII wants to annul his marriage of twenty years and marry Anne Boleyn. The pope and most of Europe opposes him. Into this impasse steps Thomas Cromwell: a wholly original man, a charmer and a bully, both idealist and opportunist, astute in reading people, and implacable in his ambition. But Henry is volatile: one day tender, one day murderous. Cromwell helps him break the opposition, but what will be the price of his triumph?
What I Liked
The original premise. I’ve either read of or watched Henry VIII’s saga unfold many times before, from devouring historical nonfiction titles about his appetite for new wives, to watching the aforementioned Tudors TV series starring Jonathan Rhys Myers in the role of the king. The character of Cromwell, in these versions, was present but not central, with the primary roles taken by the Henry VIII and his various love interests. Despite this, due to Cromwell’s meteoric rise and fall, I always found him to be one of the most intriguing individuals trapped within the travails to which England was subjected to by Henry VIII. Mantel’s idea to put Cromwell at the center of the narrative and see historical events unfold through his eyes was pure genius. Due to his upbringing as a commoner, his uncommon intellect, and his dazzling ascension to the upper echelons of the British court in just a few decades, using Cromwell as the reader’s eyes and ears provides a completely new view on a very well known saga.
The audiobook narration. I could rave about Simon Slater’s narration to anyone who will listen – and in this case it’s you, since you’re reading my blog! Slater apparently has an acting background, and it shows in his amazing rendition of this novel. Somehow, despite having to narrate 5 or 6 main characters who are all British middle aged men, Slater is able to differentiate between them in his tones and cadences, so that the reader can really feel them brought to life and imagine standing in a room with them as they speak. There’s Cromwell, who is portrayed through the narrator’s rich baritone, the king (with a richer more open voice), Thomas Moore (more sniveling and higher-pitched), Cardinal Wolsey (dragging and lisping), The Duke Of Norfolk (barking and raspy) and so many more. I’ve read reviews in which readers of the physical book version of the novel complained about Mantel’s liberal use of the pronoun ‘he’, which made it difficult to tell when when a particular male character was delivering dialogue rather than another. I think that listening to this book in Simon Slater’s audiobook narration instead would have completely resolved that issue. Honestly, this has now become my favorite audiobook narration of all time.
The writing. Hilary Mantel certainly can write rich, complex, transporting prose, and she does a masterful job in Wolf Hall. In her sentences, words either tumble around each other, full and slippery or land as heavy and commanding bricks of meaning. Mantel also peppers phrases that really get at the essence of human life throughout her prose, which will make you stop in your tracks and think, then hurry to add them to your quote journal (example below and in my blog post image above). While reading reviews of the book on Goodreads, I noticed that some readers abandoned the novel within the first few chapters due to the writing style, which they found overly complex. Personally, I’m the kind of reader that prefers long, winding, elaborate sentences, especially in period novels of this kind. I think the embellishment of the language helps to immerse me in a time when people definitely spoke in a more ornamented manner than we’re used to today. I think after a few chapters you begin to get used to Mantel’s writing style and to further appreciate it’s beauty and sophistication.
“But it is no use to justify yourself. It is no good to explain. It is weak to be anecdotal. It is wise to conceal the past even if there is nothing to conceal. A man’s power is in the half-light, in the half-seen movements of his hand and the unguessed-at expression of his face. It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.” ― Hilary Mantel,
What I Didn’t Like
The length and the idealization of Cromwell’s character. I loved, loved, loved this novel, so it was very hard to come up with things I didn’t like about it. Reflecting on it, though, I felt that despite the fact that I can’t wait to read the next book in the trilogy, Wolf Hall still felt unnecessarily long. I think the plot and density of the prose would have been better served had the book been three-fourths as long as it actually was – let’s say just over 500 pages instead of just over 650. There were a few parts that were either tangents off of the main story line to provide even more background on Cromwell’s character, or sections that just dragged a bit, which could have easily been omitted without affecting the overall superbness of the book. The only other aspect of the book I also took slight issue with was the fact that Cromwell’s character is heavily idealized in the novel. History has demonstrated that he was an exceptionally intelligent, rational and ambitious man, but I think Mantel’s strays into territory which makes Cromwell seem somewhat morally idealized as well. We may never know exactly what was going through Cromwell’s head during his various machinations at the English court, but it’s doubtful he wasn’t just as morally bankrupt as everyone else who was reaching for power at that time.
My favorite audiobook narration of all time, to date, which truly does justice to a sweeping, riveting, compelling tour de force of a novel portraying a well-known and well-loved chapter of British history in a new and unexpected way.
About The Author
Hilary Mantel is the two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize for her best-selling novels, Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies—an unprecedented achievement. The Royal Shakespeare Company recently adapted Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the stage to colossal critical acclaim and a BBC/Masterpiece six-part adaption of the novels will broadcast in 2015.
The author of fourteen books, including A Place of Greater Safety, Beyond Black, and the memoir Giving up the Ghost, she is currently at work on the third installment of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy.
Also In This Series
Bring Up The Bodies (2012)
Kindle Paperback Hardcover
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
The sequel to Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, Wolf Hall, delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn.
Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice. At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne’s head?
Have you read Wolf Hall or listened to the audiobook? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for historical crime mystery Death Of A Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel, financial advice book Worth It By Amanda Steinberg, nonfiction pick Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History by Bill Schutt, and historical fiction novel Before The Rains by Dinah Jefferies.
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