Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

He shakes his head. ‘You’ll live.’ He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal.  But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm.  You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs.  You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it,God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.

It’s not often a sequel surpasses the original, yet Hilary Mantel has succeeded in accomplishing just that. Bring Up the Bodies is brilliant (and, happily, a good 264 pages shorter than Wolf Hall).  It continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, describing the downfall of Anne Boleyn and the rise of Jane Seymour.

If you know your British monarchy, you’ll find no surprises or plot twists in these pages…  this is despite the (still) unorthodox use of Thomas Cromwell as her protagonist.  Instead Mantel concentrates on immersing her readers in Henry VIII’s court; placing us, with Cromwell, at the center of the action.  As in Wolf Hall, the characters in Bring Up the Bodies are written with incredible tenderness.  The author works hard at establishing a sense of intimacy and a foundation of affection… until we feel that we know these men and women as well as our own families.  More so, even.  She creates a false sense of history by continuously referring back to events that took place in the first book.  The reader remembers with Cromwell.  His daughter, Grace, dressed up in peacock wings for Christmas. The persecution of Cardinal Wolsey.  These memories haunt him, and in turn they haunt us. There were moments in which I found myself actually missing the Cardinal  – Thomas’ master, mentor and friend – thinking of him fondly as if we’d met.  Mantel wraps her story around her readers as if it were the Queen’s ermine furs.

And, let’s be honest, what a story it is!  So much intrigue and human emotion. The Boleyns move through the narrative like a serpent, Anne its head.  This is a period when family was truly everything.  Men, and women too, fought to build dynasties.  Henry fights to secure the Tudor succession.  The Boleyns have aspirations that border on treason.  Even Cromwell focuses, with no illusions on where service to a king eventually will lead,  on building more secure futures for his son, his nephew and his people.

It’s obvious Mantel loves her characters.  Still she manages to avoid sentimentality and has written a novel filled with wicked and dry humor…. her signature.  She doesn’t waste her sentences on historically unlikely romantic fantasies.  The one man who has the  luxury to indulge in them, the King, comes off as the more ridiculous for it.   In one scene a weepy Henry embraces his 16-year old son, the illegitimate (taking him out of line for the throne) Duke of Richmond, dramatically beseeching him to pray.  ” ‘Pray for your father, pray God does not abandon me.  I have sinned, I must have.  The marriage was illicit.’  “What, this one was?’ the boy says.  ‘This one as well?’ ”  The hypocrisy of the King, like everything else, has no boundaries.

Bring Up the Bodies takes up the plot almost exactly where Wolf Hall left it. The transition is seamless, as if the author never stopped writing.   Mantel’s prose style is unusual.  Both books are, technically, narrated from the third person.  But there is an unsettling immediacy to the action. In fact the writing is constantly shifting from third into the second person – always in the present tense. It isn’t jolting and it isn’t something you would immediately pick up on.  Still, it’s there and it’s disorienting. Leaving the reader unbalanced.

…With the graces of his person and mind, he could have floated and hovered above the court and its sordid machinations, a man of refinement moving in his own sphere: commissioning translations of the ancient poets, and causing them to be published in exquisite editions.  He could have ridden pretty white horses that curvet and bow in front of ladies.  Unfortunately, he liked to quarrel and brag, intrigue and snub.  As we find him now, in his light circular room in the Martin Tower, we find him pacing, hungry for conflict, we ask ourselves, does he know why he is here?  Or is that surprise still to come?

Or, even better, in this example:

The boom of the cannon catches them unawares, shuddering across the water; you feel the jolt inside, in your bones.

Regardless of whether or not you’re a fan of historical fiction, this is one of those novels that is so incredibly well written and constructed that it transcends its genre.  Personally, Anne Boleyn bores the hell out of me.  I never read The Other Boleyn Girl, avoided the film, didn’t bother with The Tudors television series.  I’m not really even sure why Anne’s become so celebrated other than as the mother of Elizabeth.  (In contrast to Catherine of Aragon, whose place she took.  Catherine was the daughter of Queen Isabella I & King Ferdinand of Spain.  Her claim to the English throne, through her mother, was stronger than the Tudor’s.  She ruled when Henry was off fighting in France, commanded her army to fight the Scots and sent the defeated Scottish King’s bloodied shirt to Henry as a token.  She was by far the better Queen, better leader and savvier politician than Anne).   And yet, in spite of my professed disinterest, I couldn’t stop reading Bring Up the Bodies.  All the buzz, the anticipation, the hype built up around this novel… it deserves every bit.

Publisher:  Henry Holt and Company, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 8050 9003 1

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7 thoughts on “Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

  1. Hi tolmsted,
    I’m compiling a fortnightly list on my blogs, of reviews I read during the past two weeks that convinced me to get hold of the book. not just put it on my TBR, but actually buy it and read it.
    Your review is going on that list, because it has intrigued me enough, to order, not Bringing up the bodies, but Wolf Hall.
    Thank you, I hope I like it as much as you obviously did.


  2. If people keep telling me that Bring Up the Bodies is better than Wolf Hall, I might just have to ditch the two books I’m currently in the middle of and dive right in. I’ve been trying to keep a level head, but to be honest, this is the first book I’ve been anticipating so eagerly in years and I’m not sure how I’ve managed to hold out until now. It’s probably expectation fear: as I come across more and more rave reviews, I’m inevitably getting my hopes ridiculously high… Must. Breathe.


    1. Sorry dear, but I’d give up the fight. Bring Up the Bodies really is that good. I think in part it’s because readers (at least this reader) are more familiar with the history in the second book than the events that made the plot of Wolf Hall. And, still, Mantel manages to put a new twist on it.

      There’s also the multiple be-headings. I, mean, who doesn’t enjoy a good Tudor beheading?


      1. Things could definitely be worse if the sequel to my favorite book from the past few years is better than the original… I think I’ve had to stomach tougher disappointments in my life.


  3. Yes, Thomas Cromwell, friend and minister to King Henry the VIII of England. Cromwell is a magnificent bastard, and I mean that in the best way possible. Even as he helps to engineer the downfall of Anne Boleyn, I couldn’t help but root for him; he does what he needs to do to ensure Henry’s happiness and his own house’s security, and does it with ruthless competence.


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