The 2009 Booker Prize is a tense description of Thomas Cromwell’s ambition and above all of his personality.
When reading this novel one may fall into the trap of giving too much weight to the historical facts: the importance, or lack of it, of Anne Boleyn; Henry VIII’s mercurial personality or the emergence of England as a world power. But what is truly unique is Mantel’s ability to narrate Cromwell’s relentless ascension to power.
What most fascinated me about Mantel’s narrative was the way she creates Cromwell as a character. She sketches his past using anecdotes, comments from the other characters or in some cases Cromwell’s own interior monologue. His complex personality grows, expands, reaches beyond his apparent vulnerability as Wolsey’s secretary when the Cardinal falls into disgrace. From that moment onwards the chain of events flows smoothly, Henry becoming oddly dependent on Cromwell, even more dependent than he already was on Anne.
Mantel’s style is not easy to follow with continuous flashbacks into Cromwell’s life. Particularly interesting is his relationship with his son Gregory, one that it is difficult to read, it either shows disappointment or the relief of the father who rather prefers his son’s choosing of a less ruthless, violent path in life.
Although the story unfolds in a rather uneventful way, it is difficult to surprise with historical facts, the build up to Thomas Moore’s execution is beatiful and intense. Cromwells shows in his dealings with Moore at that stage that he is human too, that he would much prefer the former Lord Chancellor to compromise, to act as a politician. It is clear that what irritates Cromwell about Moore’s attitude during his trial is his intellectual arrogance, whereas he, Cromwell, is the modern style minister, a man always driven by his objectives and those of his master the King.
The book is a beatiful painting of a modern politician set in pre-modern world.