Wolf Hall, By Hilary Mantel

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The Independent Culture

Wolf Hall is not where Hilary Mantel's hero, Thomas Cromwell, lives. It's the seat of Jane Seymour's family, and Seymour will prove, in time, and hopefully in the sequel to this brilliant novel, to be Cromwell's undoing, for she will die giving birth to Henry VIII's son. Cromwell will then engage in his biggest, and fatal, mistake: manipulating his king into marrying Anne of Cleves.

Everything in Mantel's superb recreation of Tudor intrigue points to something else, and nothing is quite as it seems. Conversations are multi-layered; even a glance is full of double meanings. Cromwell himself is a man of integrity and a family man, yet his children fear him; according to his sister-in-law, even the king fears him. He was born a poor blacksmith's son but worked his way up to become Henry's closest adviser. He is a sophisticated reader and speaker of many languages, but is constantly reminded of his humble origins by the aristocrats around the king.

It is to Mantel's great credit that she retains this sense of the man as an enigma, but never allows him to slip from sight. Few historical novels revolutionise the genre (John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman is perhaps the most famous example), but Mantel has performed her own revolution here. It is not simply that she has chosen to write in the present tense. In order to create a sense of authenticity, historical fiction writers tend to play up the grisly aspects of the past or simply overload the detail. Mantel has done something different: detail is sparing but powerful; grimness is played down but always present. Her authenticity comes from her characters' multi-layered consciousness, which manages to be both recognisably modern and Tudor-bound at the same time. Wolf Hall is a tremendous achievement and one of the most exciting books of the past 10 years.