6 September 2012

Review 50: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

"By 1535 Thomas Cromwell, the blacksmith's son, is far from his humble origins. Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes have risen with those of Anne Boleyn, Henry's second wife, for whose sake Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church. But Henry's actions have forced England into dangerous isolation, and Anne has failed to do what she promised: bear a son to secure the Tudor line. When Henry visits Wolf Hall, Cromwell watches as he falls in love with the silent, plain Jane Seymour. The minister sees what is at stake: not just the king's pleasure, but the safety of the nation. As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a 'truth' that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne's final days." 

In short, this novel is superb. It perhaps doesn't quite reach the heady heights of Wolf Hall, which is one of my all-time favourites, but it is certainly significantly better than nearly everything else I have read recently and is a wonderful, lyrical look at the next section of Thomas Cromwell's life, which follows Anne Boleyn's reign and downfall and Jane Seymour's rise. Mantel creates an enigmatic Cromwell, so different from what the history books tell us, who is aggressive and single minded and yet intelligent and sympathetic. The real draw though, is Mantel's phenomenal writing, the book is a joy to read and to wallow in the wonderful way that she writes.

First Line: "His children are falling from the sky."

Why I read it: I adored Wolf Hall and so this is one of the books I was the most excited to read this year. I read this when it first came out, but it has since been announced as being on the Man Booker longlist.

Who I would recommend it to: Fans of literary historical fiction, people who enjoy beautifully crafted novels.
I learnt whilst reading James Wood's review of this novel for the New Yorker that Aristotle once said that the difference between an historian and a poet is the plausibly hypothetical. It is this that makes Mantel such a wonderful historical author as whilst the historical details are superbly researched, it is the authenticity of the details that Mantel has added that make her historical books so beautiful. The way that Mantel creates such a vivid, real and intelligent world is phenomenal. Also impressive is the level of humanity present - I found this when I read A Place of Greater Safety as well, which is about the French Revolution - the frightening, brittle human side of Henry's court is really captured. The way she conjures up the fear, suspicion and intrigue at court is haunting and affecting.

We often think about people such as Henry in such broad terms and his wives are characterised by a few keywords or by the manner of their death. I feel I should offer a disclaimer in that Anne Boleyn is probably my favourite historical figure and I am a little enamoured of her so I was not impressed when Philippa Gregory portrayed her as a conniving, manipulative so and so who slept with her brother. I adored Wolf Hall but Anne was a minor character in that and I was nervous that I would dislike the way Mantel wrote her in Bring up the Bodies, however I found Mantel's Anne satisfying - I shouldn't really be surprised I suppose considering Mantel's obvious skill and devotion to authenticity. The steely determination, intelligence and wit were there alongside the manipulations, anger and fear.

I loved the unpredictability of Wolf Hall, despite the familiar setting and characters. To be able to write a novel set in such a well known period of history and still make it surprising is impressive. Part of this is of course due to the focus on Cromwell as our main character, who is far less well known than Henry or Anne, or even figures like Wolsey. I must admit that the enjoyment was lessened a little bit from Wolf Hall only because I had not been expecting such a fresh look at the period in Wolf Hall, and I also enjoyed discovering Mantel's wonderful writing which I hadn't experienced before. So I had really high expectations for Bring up the Bodies and didn't get the thrill of experiencing something for the first time but nonetheless there is little to fault here. The portrayal of Cromwell is perhaps a little too adoring, although as a work of fiction, Mantel can of course do as she likes. The further into Cromwell's career we get, the more suspect his actions, and the less convincing the rosy portrait is unfortunately.

Basically, this book is magnificent and I am unsurprised but pleased to see it on the Man Booker longlist, and am fairly confident it will make it on to the shortlist, if not win. Mantel's soaring, beautiful language is playful and clever and a joy to read.

3 comments:

  1. review If there ever was a sequel, this is it. It draws heavily form the prequel (even tiny details you thought inconsequential and irritating then), maintains the tone style pace and form, and yet maintains an identity enough to capture and make the new reader (unknown to the prequel) comfortable.
    Hillary Mantel has nicely wrapped up, staged and done justice to the historical nature of the destruction of Anne Boleyn, and all that the prequel was building up to (That becoming noticeable only in hindsight).

    Another point that i appreciated about this was the correction of sorts that was done to the pronoun confusion in Wolf Hall (i.e. all the 'he' is referred to Cromwell by default) by marking a 'He, Cromwell, says/ thinks etc...', especially in places more prone to confusion.

    Like like. :)

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    1. Thank you for your comment! It's a magnificent book isn't it - I can't wait to read The Mirror & the Light! It's an amazingly well crafted trilogy, I think the last one will be the best!

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  2. Reading "Bring Up the Bodies," like "Wolf Hall" before it, is something like looking at a Monet or other masterpiece of Impressionism. Mantel gives us a different way of viewing history, a new way of seeing that shimmers, is fresh and in a way hyper-real.

    For an overall assessment, simply choose your favorite superlative; then apply it to both books in Mantel's Cromwell story.

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