Hilary Mantel explores at close quarters the world of Henry VIII
by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt and Co.
$27.00 List Price
Hilary Mantel is the finest underappreciated writer working in Britain. While her better-known contemporaries (Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan—make your own list) garner fame and fortune, she quietly produces one excellent novel after another. Each is different: They range from a portrait of a sheltered twentieth-century woman misreading a Muslim culture (Eight Months on Ghazzah Street ) to a hilariously dark send- up of the psychic profession in all its guises (Beyond Black ) to the best novel I have ever read about the French Revolution (A Place of Greater Safety ). Yet they all contain the essential Mantel element, which is a style— of writing and of thinking—that combines steely-eyed intelligence with intense yet wide-ranging sympathy. This style implies enormous respect for her readers, as if she believes that we are as intelligent and empathetic as she is, and one of the acute pleasures of reading her books is that we sometimes find ourselves living up to those expectations.
Wolf Hall is both like and unlike anything else Mantel has written. It most resembles A Place of Greater Safety, which is also a historical novel (though to saddle either of these masterpieces with that hackneyed label is a bit like calling Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower a historical novel: The description is technically accurate and at the same time completely misleading in tone). This one deals with a passage of English history that is at once broadly familiar and particularly obscure. Mantel focuses on the period from 1527 to 1535, when Henry VIII
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