28th Jun 2012
Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel is definitely what would be deemed a literary heavyweight. She won the 2009 Booker Prize with Wolf Hall (precursor to Bring Up the Bodies) – which was only the latest and greatest of a succession of prizes.
Nor does she limit herself in genre, location, time or scope: she has set books in Saudi Arabia and the heart of London, explored Apartheid and spiritualism, and conjured the terror of the French Revolution and the machinations of Henry VIII’s court.
Bring Up the Bodies is the second book chronicling the inexorable (so far!) rise of Thomas Cromwell through the ranks of Henry VIII’s servants.
Deliciously dirty politics and raunchy relationships combine in this tense instalment, in which the reader watches the net slowly tightening around Anne Boleyn as she struggles to keep Henry’s interest and trust.
Mantel uses the present tense, creating an immediacy which somehow stops the reader from dwelling on the inevitable and infamous ending.
We are privy to Cromwell’s innermost thoughts, and the choice of third person – which some have found tricky to get used to in such a character-based novel – makes us feel the detachment with which Cromwell must have viewed people and events to maintain his formidable position.
The triumph of both Bring Up the Bodies and Wolf Hall is undoubtedly the richness of Cromwell’s character; the danger is being so sucked into the fictionalised version that you lose any historical perspective!
Cromwell is generally remembered as a rather harsh and unyielding man, but Mantel takes a more sympathetic perspective: here we get the human side.
Yet his logical and efficient mind is beautifully recreated through her prose. In this book he is perhaps less emotional and more impassive as he takes unpalatable decisions which will ensure Henry’s favour and his own survival; it will be interesting to see if he hardens his heart further in the sequel (Mantel says she is not finished with him yet!).
Gentle hints of menace yet to come pervade this book – I felt an actual heaviness as I realised the extent of hostility towards Cromwell from his peers.
Bring Up the Bodies is a highly accomplished and fascinating study of both character and history. It moves at a slower pace than the first in the sequence, perhaps necessarily as it relives the painstaking plotting that saw Anne Boleyn’s downfall. But I guarantee you will feel yourself drawn into Cormwell’s precarious world in this masterful feat of realism.
Recommended for: Anyone who’s already read Wolf Hall will likely not need a recommendation; they’ll be stampeding innocent book-buyers in their rush for the shelves. If you enjoy either historical or character fiction this is a must-read, although I would suggest reading Wolf Hall first.
Other recommended reading: The place to start – if you haven’t already! – is with Wolf Hall, which sees Cromwell fleeing his violent father and humble beginnings to begin his eclectic career in law, diplomacy and politics.
Philippa Gregory’s historical fiction set in the same period shows the often-unheard female perspective.
Should you wish to take the shine off the imaginings with the (hardly prosaic) facts, I’d reluctantly recommend David Starkey (even though he irritates the bejeezus out of me!) for his eminently readable histories of the period, such as Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII.