Hilary Mantel's portrait of the blacksmith's son who rose to become Henry VIII's right-hand man, and for a time, the most powerful individual in the country, is a tour de force. It seems unfair to cite this book in a "best of" list once again, after it dominated so many of last year's selections, but it still outclasses almost anything else (and costs less than half as much in paperback, out this year).
Much has been made of Mantel's "innovative" use of the present tense in a historical novel, as though this is unique (it's not); not so much, though, has been said about her refusal to name Thomas Cromwell. As if to mirror his ability to slip into powerful networks and work invisibly, she refers to him only as "he" (other characters may name him): this is a man whose identity is legendary throughout the land, whose reputation is feared, yet who also manages to efface himself.
Cromwell's youth, spent abroad in various underhand activities, is referenced through the food he eats, the clothes he wears, the way he orders his servants. Mantel's task was to make human a power-hungry tyrant, which she does never better than in his scenes with his employer and king. While we might glimpse an occasionally sentimental Cromwell, mourning the early death of his wife, or even a playful Cromwell, gently flirting with a young Jane Seymour, it is the courtly Cromwell, negotiating with Henry, who really intrigues and reveals. Sympathy, fear, resentment, watchfulness, generosity and protectiveness are all part of these encounters, and Cromwell's ambition seeps quietly through them all.
Mantel's sequel will presumably take us to Cromwell's grisly fate, condemned as a traitor, just as his nemeses Anne Boleyn and Thomas More were before him. We must be patient, though, and not rush her thoughtful, psychologically truthful prose, eager as we are to absorb it once again.