The lowly born Thomas Cromwell gnashes his way into Henry VIII's court.
That Hilary Mantel's startlingly enjoyable "Wolf Hall" won this year's Brit-only Man Booker Prize is no great surprise. What is surprising is how it stitches new splendor into the rather worn cloth of kings, courtiers, plagues and power.
The book takes place in the 1500s and follows the lowly born Thomas Cromwell as he gnashes his way into the very inner circle of King Henry VIII. Henry has pushed England -- and all Christendom, really -- to the precipice with his obsession to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and make a new queen of the usurper Anne Boleyn. Good-bye Pope, hello Church of England.
Yet because Mantel is concerned less with the repercussions of the era than its daily machinations, you don't need Wikipedia to enjoy her novel. You only need Cromwell.
As a teenager, he'd fled England for a mercenary's life in France, then returned rich and wily enough to get a law degree and attain unprecedented influence in English affairs. The gentlemen of Henry's court loathe him for it. They insult him openly, dismiss him as a smithy's son and Henry's whim. It is supreme fun to watch them humbled by Cromwell's bare-knuckled intellect, acidic instincts and "relentless bonhomie."
Cromwell gives us box seats to such glories as Anne's coronation, when the London streets are paved with "blossoms mashed and minced" so that their "scent rises like smoke." But his empathetic sensitivities to the more human parts of medieval life prove more endearing: a chronic grief at the loss of his family to the plague, a penchant for employing whipper-snapper charity cases. In "Wolf Hall," Mantel revels in granularity: cooks learning to make spiced wafers, the way a London morning feels "mild as buttermilk," Cromwell's irritation that an adversary "can never get a proper shave," a poorly hosted dinner party serving "flesh of some sort, with a gritty sauce like Thames mud." If Cromwell's story is history, it's history with taste buds.
One does wonder why the novel swells to 560 pages, and also if it isn't missing some soul. The novel's primary moral question -- is Cromwell really just the overeducated thug they say he is, ushering in a new age of royal tyranny and anti-Catholic repression? -- remains unattended. The "why" loses to the "how."
One is tempted to have more sympathy for the fanatic torturer of heretical Protestants, Thomas More, who on principle would not swear his oath to the new queen. It's hard to find principle in Cromwell except loyalty, love of the task at hand, and perhaps trying to minimize the casualties. As he himself muses, "What is there, but affairs?" Such thin characterization robs the novel of the rich emotional and sociological payoff we have a right to expect from literary fiction.
But hey, Hilary Mantel isn't Anne Tyler, and this book isn't a life-changer. It's a great read from a great mind, an addictively rich window into a time both alien to and mirroring our own.
Scott Muskin is the author of "The Annunciations of Hank Meyerson, Mama's Boy and Scholar." He lives in Minneapolis.