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Originally published Sunday, October 25, 2009 at 12:04 AM

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Book review

'Wolf Hall': Life, death and intrigue in the court of Henry VIII

"Wolf Hall," Hilary Mantel's 2009 Man Booker-prize-winning novel, vividly portrays the era of England's King Henry VIII, when power-hungry courtiers prowled the court, and death — by disease or execution — waited in the wings.

Special to The Seattle Times

"Wolf Hall"

by Hilary Mantel

Henry Holt, 532 pp., $27

"Wolf Hall," the title of Hilary Mantel's 2009 Man Booker Prize-winning historical novel set at the court of King Henry VIII, is both a physical place and a metaphor. It refers to the home of the Seymour family, whose daughter Jane would have her own place of prominence in history, and yet it stands for the book's entire population as well: These courtiers resemble a pack of wolves, eyeing each other warily, killing when hungry.

The rise of Thomas Cromwell, from whose point of view the story unfolds, provides its narrative arc. In 1500, where the novel begins, he is the abused young son of a drunken blacksmith. He flees his father and hometown of Putney by making his way to Dover, where he "walks around the docks saying to people, do you know where there's a war just now?" By its end, 35 years later, he is the king's right-hand man and a person of great power, still remembering that frightened young man of long ago.

A vast number of historical figures parade in between, so many that Mantel helpfully gives a Cast of Characters at the book's start. (There are, by my count, nearly a hundred named.) This is not light reading, and a rudimentary knowledge of English history assists greatly in following the busy and complex plot, filled with various Henrys and Annes and Thomases. Generally, the book focuses on the years of Henry VIII's efforts to annul his marriage to Queen Katherine (of Aragon) and marry the pale, determined Anne Boleyn, who resolutely waits for him, long refusing to be his mistress.

Mantel, a British author who has written nine previous novels, has a remarkable ability to make history breathe, to make characters we know from history class and the movies (including, just last year, "The Other Boleyn Girl") color-flecked and real. We read that rubies cluster on the king's knuckles "like bubbles of blood" and note Cromwell's observation that if the king "had been called to a lower station in life, he could have been a traveling player and leader of his troupe." And see how George, Lord Rocheford, brother of Anne Boleyn, comes to life in this description:

"[T]oday what fascinates him is the flame-colored satin that is pulled through his slashed velvet oversleeve. He keeps coaxing the little puffs of fabric with a fingertip, pleating and nudging them and encouraging them to grow bigger, so that he looks like one of those jugglers who run balls down their arms."

Mantel does not spare us the darkness of the era. Cromwell is haunted by the loss of his wife and, later, his young daughters to plague — "the sweat," which it seems no one can outrun. (He asks, touchingly, if his daughter may be buried with the book in which she has learned to write her name, but is denied.) And the burning of a heretic — an elderly woman — is described in intricate detail, in quiet observations that make your skin crawl: "When the executioner came with a torch, it was pale in the sunshine, barely more than a sick movement, like the movement of eels in a bag."

By the book's end, Anne is still queen — though Henry's interest is waning, due to her inability to produce a male heir — and the former Lord Chancellor Thomas More is facing death in the Tower of London. Mantel, in interviews, has said she plans a sequel to cover the final five years of Cromwell's life. Those who love this era — and who love sharp, vivid prose — have something to look forward to, as they regretfully close the covers of "Wolf Hall."

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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