Author Hilary Mantel gives the reader a new take on that oft told tale of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn by showing it through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who despite humble beginnings was able to raise himself very high while aiding Henry VIII to rid himself of Katherine of Aragon in "The King's Great Matter", as well as his involvement in the Reformation and destruction of the monasteries and abbeys (to his own great gain). I think most of us have read enough about Henry and his six wives and know the basics, as well as enough reviewers have come before me so I don't need to rehash it all again. I'm just here to give my two cents on the book.
While I did enjoy a fresh take on this period, seeing it through the eyes of Cromwell, as well as seeing him interact with his wife, children and other family members, I did find the present tense very distracting and I had a difficult time getting started. Frankly, I picked up (and finished) four different books in between periods working on this one - although one covering the same period helped me a great deal as it served as a *refresher course* on who and what Cromwell was.
I found I couldn't read it during the work week at the end of the day when my brain was tired as well as on weekends when it was getting too close to bedtime - I put it down and read something lighter. That said, by the time I hit page 150 or so I was enjoying it a great deal and eventually I wasn't bothered the present tense at all, nor the excessive use of referring to Cromwell as "he" (it will drive you nuts at first).
I've seen this book described as a "rich meaty stew" and that's pretty much how I approached it, I took it in small bites over several weeks instead of gorging myself all at once and getting heartburn (reader burnout). Or you can look at it like you're climbing a mountain - you have to stop to rest and acclimate yourself, as well as slowing down to savor the shifting scenery as it changes from the alpine meadows and flowers to the starker views of the alpine tundra above the tree line. And wow towards the end when I reached the summit and saw the beauty of it all below me.
I loved the characterizations of the Boleyns, especially Anne, Mary and George (and oooh, his witchy wife Jane Rochford), anytime they were in a room things really moved along. I really enjoyed Cromwell's dry wit and I'll share some of my favorites here,
Cromwell's family asking him about Anne Boleyn,
"They say she is graceful. Dances well."
"We did not dance."
Mercy says, "But what do you think? A friend to the gospel?"
He shrugs. "We did not pray."
"Are her teeth good?"
"For God's sake woman: when she sinks them into me, I'll let you know."
"Anne has very long legs. By the time he comes to her secret part he will be bankrupt. The French wars will be cheap, in comparison."
Discussing Anne's virtue (or lack of) with Wyatt,
"...Besides, the king is no judge of maidenheads. He admits as much. With Katherine, it took him twenty years to puzzle out his brother had been there before him."
Final thoughts - if you're a first time novice reader on this period this is not the book for you - you need to come into this knowing who is who and who did what to whom. If it's been a few years and you're feeling rusty, find something else first and give yourself a refresher course. Lastly, do not be afraid to put the book down and take a breather and pick it up again later. If it isn't the book for you don't be afraid to just stop, prestigious literary award or not. Not every book is going to be for every person and life is too short. 4/5 stars.
Thanks to Henry Holt and Company for my copy of this book.