Saturday, May 5, 2012
Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 2012 (US ed.)
"Those who are made can be unmade."
First, a very hearty thank you to Christine at Henry Holt for offering and sending me the ARC of this most excellent novel.
Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in Hilary Mantel's planned trilogy of novels focusing on Thomas Cromwell, who, as the author notes, "remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie" due to the lack of a "full and authoritative biography." Along with Wolf Hall, the 2009 Booker-prize winning novel, and continuing on in the final book of Mantel's trilogy, she hopes to continue her "efforts to dig him out." It is an amazing novel, an intelligently-written work of historical fiction with a literary character that is also deeply engrossing, and ultimately leaves the reader wishing for much more. It begins with Henry VIII at Wolf Hall, where he has set his sights on young Jane Seymour; it ends with the death of Anne Boleyn and the "swift and private" marriage that takes place ten days later. If you think you know this story and you're wondering why you should read one more novel about it, well, you haven't read an account like this one.
UnlikeWolf Hall where the reader follows Cromwell's rise from his origins as the Putney blacksmith's boy to the chief counsellor to Henry VIII over a long span of time, the story in Bring Up the Bodies covers a relatively short period, from September 1535 through the summer of 1536, with most of the action taking place in only a few weeks. But as everyone familiar with the story of Anne Boleyn knows, this brief amount of time is chock full of quickly-unfolding events -- none the least of which is Henry tiring of Anne and looking to Jane Seymour as a replacement queen who will hopefully provide him with a male heir. Thomas Cromwell has been around for years trying to figure out exactly what his king wishes and making it so, doing what he must to keep Henry happy while also preserving his present position of power. It's a tough job, one in which Cromwell has made a number of enemies along the way, "grandees who, if they could, would destroy him with one vindictive swipe, as if he were a fly." He is also forever reminded of his lowly birth. Yet, when Henry makes it clear that Cromwell must clear a path for him to be shed of Anne Boleyn and marry Jane Seymour, Cromwell's enemies reveal that they would support his actions towards the queen's downfall. While working toward that goal, Cromwell also takes the opportunity to exact revenge, via his behind-the-scenes machinations, on those who had helped to engineer the downfall of his mentor Cardinal Wolsey so well described in Wolf Hall; unfortunately, his targets don't see what's coming until it's too late.
Cromwell is generally viewed as a man with a great lust for power, a person for whom nothing acts as a barrier on his way to gaining it. But in Mantel's hands, it becomes easy to find sympathy for this very human figure. He "never spares himself in the king's service," and is "distinguished by his courtesy, his calmness and his indefatigable attention to England's business," and at the same time doesn't slight his own rewards, always planning how to secure the future for himself and his family. His tolerance toward Henry's petulant personage often reaches its limits -- as in one scene where Henry notes "I really believe, Cromwell, that you think you are king, and I am a blacksmith's boy.” Many times "Crumb" just sits quietly waiting for Henry's tirades or bragging to pass so he can get back to the business of the moment. And Cromwell also has ghosts to deal with -- those of his wife and daughters, Wolsey and even that of Thomas More, with whom he often has conversations. But Cromwell also has a great deal of patience and reason; the calm dignity of this blacksmith's boy often rubs up against and outshines the uncouth behavior of those above him. His ability to see these people for who they are as well as understanding the hypocrisy that surrounds them is one of his best traits and serves him well. Although the novel is filled with names familiar to pretty much everyone (largely due to the wealth of recent fiction surrounding Anne Boleyn and the TV series The Tudors), it is definitely Cromwell who drives the story here.
I liked this book immensely. It is very reader friendly, dispensing with the huge amounts of exposition so prevalent throughout Wolf Hall; the major players have already been introduced, and the story proceeds in a much more focused narrative. The writing immediately sends the reader back in time but at the same time, it is surprising how some things never change. The rich landowners' and nobles' rejection of a bill to benefit the poor and lift the burden of poverty that leads to criminality, for instance, might have been taken out of current events. And you can't help but really enjoy Thomas Cromwell, who constantly worries about his position and his enemies, yet who also seems to be making fun of the way these people conduct themselves. You don't need to have read Wolf Hall to enjoy Bring Up the Bodies, but my thinking is that it couldn't hurt, and that it was such a good book it would be a shame to miss it. Highly recommended.
for better and more professional reviews, check out The New York Times or The New Yorker and you can listen to Hilary Mantel discussing her book at NPR.