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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Wolf Hall: Parts 1-3 by Hilary Mantel

"...And he will have to take you as you are, which is rather like one of those square-shaped fighting dogs that low men tow about on ropes. Not that you are without a fitful charm, Tom."

Hilary Mantel has burst onto my bookshelves and claimed a spot as my new favorite author.  I purchased Wolf Hall last year from amazon.uk.   It spent a few months on my nightstand – six hundred and fifty pages is a large time commitment and I usually save the  heftier tomes for vacations. But Vacant Possession hooked me.  Fortunately Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel is divided into six parts, which allows it to be broken down into manageable chunks.

Wolf Hall is set in the court of Henry VIII, at that pivotal moment in English history when Henry is attempting to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon in order to make Anne Boleyn his queen.  The reader is an observer to the politics and machinations involved in the pleasing of a King.  That, in and of itself, would be fascinating. But what makes Wolf Hall successful and different, is Mantel’s decision to have  her narrative follow Thomas Cromwell.  It is in many ways an obvious choice – he was the Cardinal Wolsey’s man, and as such would be privy to intimate details of the negotiations with  Rome for the King’s annulment.  But he also hedged his bets.  He met with Henry on several occasions as Wolsey’s representative and performed services (such as arranging loans) for the powerful nobles closest to the King.  Thomas Cromwell was the 16th century equivalent of a  fixer.  There were very few pies baked in England that he didn’t have a finger in.

From violent and coarse beginnings Cromwell rises to the highest circles of power and influence.   That is not new information, nor is it what makes him appealing  as a main character.    As usual, it is the  personal details that draw the reader in.   He has a murky past as banker, soldier, cloth merchant and other connections only hinted at.  There is his relationship with Cardinal Wolsey – one which is based on mutual trust, loyalty and true friendship.  Cromwell’s love for his wife, family (and extended household) is also apparent, and even more compelling because of the practicality with which he tempers his emotion and affection.

Wykys stumped away after he showed him the figures.  ‘Lizzie?’ he yelled. ‘Lizzie?  Come downstairs.’

She came down.

‘You want a new husband.  Will he do?’

She stood  and looked him up and down.  ‘Well, Father.  You didn’t pick him for his looks.’  To him, her eyebrows raised, she said, ‘Do you want a wife?’

‘Should I leave you to talk it over?’ old Wykys said.  He seemed baffled: seemed to think they should sit down and write a contract there and then.

Almost, they did.  Lizzie wanted children; he wanted a wife with city contacts and some money behind her.  They were married in weeks.  Gregory arrived within the year.  Bawling, strong, one hour old, plucked from the cradle:  he kissed the infant’s fluffy skull and said, I shall be as tender to you as my father was not to me.  For what’s the point of breeding children, if each generation does not improve on what went before?

This is a stark contrast to the romantic melodrama being played out by Katherine, Henry and Anne.  Yet, Cromwell’s feelings appear  all the more genuine because of the simplicity of  Mantel’s portrayal. The opening passages of the chapter  Make or Mar.  All Hallow’s 1529 poignantly reveal a man grieving the deaths of his loved ones to  sweating sickness.   A man whose actions and emotions read as wholly appropriate to a period of history in which there were constant reminders of human mortality.

Halloween: the world’s edge seeps and bleeds.  This is the time when the tally-keepers of Purgatory, its clerks and gaolers, listen in to the living, who are praying for the dead.

At this time of year, with their parish, he and Liz would keep vigil.  They would pray for Henry Wykys, her father; for Liz’s dead husband, Thomas Williams; for Walter Cromwell, and for distant cousins; for half-forgotten names, long-dead half-sisters and lost step-children.

Last night he kept vigil alone.  He lay awake, wishing Liz back; waiting for her to come and lie beside him.  It’s true he is at Esher with the cardinal, not at home at the Austin Friars.  But, he though, she’ll know how to find me.  She’ll look for the cardinal, drawn through the space between worlds by incense and candlelight.  Wherever the cardinal is, I will be.

At some point he must have slept.  When daylight came, the room felt so empty it was empty even of him.

One of the greatest pleasures of Wolf Hall is witnessing how Hilary Mantel has chosen to distill her historical research into a novel.  It is never overt.  There are no long explanations of wars, the historical climate or societal norms of the day.   She assumes a certain level of knowledge.  The novel is suffused with historical detail, but never does the author lower herself to pointing these details out.  They are just there.  As a reader you are expected to keep up or be left behind.

Parts 1 thru 3 of Wolf Hall chronicle Thomas Cromwell’s move to position himself advantageously in Henry VIII’s court and parliament, while still maintaining his loyalty to the out-of-favor Cardinal Wolsey.   We watch him scrabble up the class ladder to wealth and power, a journey made all the more compelling because the man who is making it appears to be neither attractive or extraordinary.     In many ways, his is the original Horatio Alger story.  Hilary Mantel succeeds in giving the reader the precise and unclouded world view of a man who (to paraphrase Tolkien) did not choose his time,  or even his circumstances, but chose what to make of the time and circumstances that were given him.

United Kingdom

Publisher:  Fourth Estate, London (2009)
ISBN:  978 0 00 723018 7

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