Bring Up the Bodies

After the triumph of Wolf Hall, it was hard to imagine how Hilary Mantel could top it. And yet she does and her second Booker Prize win, Bring Up The Bodies, shows how much ingenuity and talent lies in her work. Like its prequel Wolf Hall, Bring Up The Bodies is a robust book, charting the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn, mirrored through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes.

Here, Cromwell is middle-aged, former Secretary, now the Chancellor of the Exchequer at Henry VIII’s court; a confidante, a schemer, always practical, always cautious. There is compassion as well as reflection, and yet there is also a ruthlessness, necessary in order to survive in such deadly political climate. He has surrounded himself with people he trusts: his ward Ralph Sadler, nephew Richard, both capable and discreet, and later Gregory his son, who is being educated as a gentleman.

But he must deal carefully with Henry’s Queen, Anne, for she is suspicious, paranoid and hoards affronts. And intelligent enough to know that she can go down the same way she came up in the King’s affections. And when Henry’s eyes begin to rove following her miscarriages, Anne begins to prepare for war. Mantel paints Anne as a chilling figure, one who has the intelligence to match that of Cromwell and who keeps him on his toes.

And as Cromwell’s duties grow and his power increases, we begin to see the blurring of lines as his decisions in court become increasingly complex. With great power comes great responsibility and we begin to see what it is that changes in people as they go up the power ladder. The meaning of trust and friendship, secrets and lies, all begin to change. Cromwell thinks himself unchanged and yet we begin to see how it is that he begins to accumulate enemies, just like his old master, Thomas Wolsey, betrayed by those around him for having too much power.

Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell as ultimately a solitary being, working hard for England and his King, often weighed down by the many decisions and yet unflinching regarding the path he must take, is an attractive one. He’s human and compassionate and yet set Anne Boleyn on her path to the executioner’s block. It’s subtly chilling because Cromwell doesn’t want to be the bad guy.

The fact that Wolf Hall is the country seat of the Seymour family can come as no surprise to Mantel’s readers. It spells Anne’s doom as much as Cromwell’s uncertain future. Like its prequel, Bring Up The Bodies won’t disappoint. It’s a juggernaut of a novel, rich in history, politics and survival strategy, just like its protagonist, Cromwell. It’s dense, intelligent and soulful and reads like a thriller. Just how does Mantel do it?

I don’t know why but I’d been avoiding reading anything by Hilary Mantel for a while. It’s possibly because I had mistakenly equated her with a novelist of a similar name whom I had read almost 20 years ago and to whose book I took a dislike. And so you can understand why I want to bash my head against the wall because I have finally read Wolf Hall, almost three years since it won the Man Booker Prize, and I rue that I didn’t get to it earlier. For Wolf Hall is glorious.

We all know the story of the Tudor king, Henry VIII, husband of six wives (two divorced, two executed, one dying at childbirth, one survivor) and father of Queens ‘bloody’ Mary and Elizabeth I ‘the Virgin Queen’. And we’ve probably seen the HBO costume drama The Tudors with the dashing Suffolk. But I don’t think I’ve come across a historical novel that tackles weighty history with such vitality, immediacy and sensuality. I’m a huge fan of C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake mysteries but this is a different sort of book altogether. There’s hardly any sex, except behind closed doors, not much swearing, and yet there’s so much action and thought that you feel you are right there living with Thomas Cromwell.

Because Mantel brings Thomas Cromwell alive, from the first scene where he is savagely beaten by his father Walter, to his return to London, a married man with a mission to succeed. Mantel teases out the story of Cromwell’s rise from a blacksmith’s son to become the second most powerful man in England after the King. His friendship and enmity with some of the most powerful men in the kingdom, his closeness to his mentor Cardinal Wolsey, the impact of his fall, his carefully constructed relationships with the Boleyns and Norfolk. It’s all history that we know, and yet Mantel injects a freshness to the story. Because here is Cromwell, not just an acute statesman, but also a family man who loves his wife and children, looks after his wards and trains them to become self-sufficient, well-rounded adults with a living.

What I loved most was Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell as a calculating man. The way he breaks down the power structure of Tudor England by knowing exactly what everything is worth and how he uses his knowledge of accountancy and the law as a catalyst to rise up the hierarchy. There was less of the evil plotting that we are so accustomed to seeing, but more of an everyday survival strategy at work here. Mantel certainly knows how to make such a public and powerful figure appear ordinary, like someone you or I could know.

This is the first book in Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. We meet Cromwell as a young boy about to run away from an abusive father. Then he returns, grown into a man with experience in fighting, soldiering, business and finance. And we see how he turns the misfortunes of his master, Thomas Wolsey, into something he can work with. How he turns the mistrust of Anne Boleyn as he formulates a strategy to make her Queen and to release Henry VIII from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and Papal rule.

Wolf Hall is a big book in every way. It’s size, it’s content, the robust nature of the story and prose and yet it is a thrilling read. I loved it all. And what a clever move to call the novel Wolf Hall, the seat of the Seymour family, a place that is yet to be visited in the novel.

This Week in Books

9 October, 2009

there were two major awards.

The Man Booker Prize went to Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall, her historical tale of Thomas Cromwell, which has had some outstanding reviews in the literary blog scene.

And the biggie, the Nobel Prize in Literature went to Herta Müller, a Romanian born German writer who chronicled life under Nicolae Ceaucescu’s brutal regime. The reactions to her award can be found here at the Literary Saloon and here.

So I thought Sarah Waters might win the Booker for The Little Stranger and Haruki Murakami the Nobel, but hey, what do I know? Good thing I didn’t place a bet at the bookies.