It’s finally here, Hilary Mantel’s sequel to her Booker prize winner and popular novel Wolf Hall. I was pretty excited to get my hands on this book for a reason: Mantel handles historical fiction with the iron grip of a master craftsman. She balances interesting characters with sharp dialogue and historical accuracy with what appears to be little effort.
For those of you that haven’t read Wolf Hall, the first book deals with the rise of the young Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son, to the right-hand of the king, Henry VIII. Henry’s problem, of course, is that he doesn’t have a son to succeed him. Cromwell successfully helps him to abandon the Catholic Church of Rome and to divorce his Spanish wife Katherine in order to marry Anne Boleyn. We know that the story does not end there. Henry being a fickle and troubled sovereign, Anne has to meet her fate at the hands of Thomas Cromwell in the second instalment of Mantel’s trilogy.
Wolf Hall was great but had a number of flaws; it was sometimes hard to read because of Mantel’s use of the present tense and her referring to Cromwell almost exclusively as “he”, instead of using his name, making it hard to work out who is speaking in some parts of the dialogue. The book had an enormous host of characters and the story tended to drag in places, making it confusing and a little tedious on occasion. I found that Bring up the Bodies suffers from none of these problems: partially because I was used to most of the characters and style from the first book, but also because the editing is tighter and the story feels more urgent.
The atmosphere is ominous from the beginning, picking up the narrative where Wolf Hall left off: Cromwell is at the height of his powers yet personally in a darker place than in the previous book. He has lost his original patron and friend, Cardinal Wolsey, to the schemings of the court, and his wife and daughters have died of illness. He is surrounded by enemies in court and there isn’t enough money in the Treasury to arm England against a potential attack from Spain or the Pope, and all the while the King is falling out of love with Anne Boleyn.
Mantel succeeds completely by taking a dark historical figure of bad reputation (yet of whom little is known), and turning him into a complex and likeable character. Cromwell is sharp, you admire his wit and his resourcefulness. As reader, you are always aware of how dangerous he is: yet, he is also given a very human dimension in this book. The parts in which he recalls his feelings for his family are touching and I liked his memories of his journeys in Europe, which were only vaguely hinted at in Wolf Hall.
The book is also quite funny in places: one of my favourite scenes involves the figures of the Papal Court, built as snowmen by Cromwell’s household, and the ambassador of the Emperor’s Christmas hat. I like some of the details Mantel put in as well, such as the banter concerning Hans Holbein’s (now well known) painted portrait of Thomas Cromwell.
As a whole, though, Bring up the Bodies is as grim as the title suggests, especially at the ending as Boleyn and her suitors are brutally executed without much of a fair trial and you know things can’t continue to look up for Cromwell either. Mantel deals brilliantly with the thin line between truth and lies, justice and personal interests, and the power of intellect and the written word. My favourite passage comes from the end of the book, as Cromwell attempts to save his friend, the poet Thomas Wyatt, from sharing the fate of Anne Boleyn’s suitors:
“When Wyatt writes, his lines fledge feathers, and unfolding this plumage they dive below their meaning and skim above it. They tell us that the rules of power and the rules of war are the same, the art is to deceive…
Now, if a man’s subject is deception, you are deceived if you think you grasp his meaning. You close your hand as it flies away. A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it. A quill, sharpened, can stir and rustle like the pinions of angels.”
Highly recommended. If you only read one book of ficton, this summer, make it this one!