No matter how many accolades Wolf Hall has gotten, it’s hard not to tuck into a “Thomas Cromwell trilogy” without feeling a bit like the 73-year-old version of yourself (just with fewer afghans; I plan to have a lot of afghans). And for the first hundred pages of Hilary Mantel’s inaugural Cromwell novel, I wondered whether I had perhaps jumped the gun on King Henry-themed historical fiction: For all its wit and depth and (what I assume is) contextual accuracy, Wolf Hall was failing to take me out of myself. It seemed a book for a quiet afternoon at the library, or a peaceful morning in bed, not the kind of novel that might make itself heard over the cacophony of a subway commute.
Wolf Hall is, put simply, a fictionalized biography of Thomas Cromwell, from his time as right-hand man to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (lots of Thomases in this book) through his ascension in the court of King Henry VIII. The novel won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award and has already been picked up for the stage and television. Its sequel, Bring up the Bodies, also won the Man Booker Prize, reminding us that British lady authors can write bestselling literary series that don’t include wizarding schools or vomit-flavored jelly beans.