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Bring Up the Bodies

March 9, 2013

I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall a couple years ago and loved it—what with its intimate view of Henry VIII and Tudor England through Thomas Cromwell’s eyes. Mantel’s achievement was to transform a historical figure mostly denigrated over time into a caring, generous, intelligent man whose actions were all of a piece. That is, he served Henry and only Henry, and if his (Cromwell’s) enemies could be served their just desserts simultaneously, all the better. Wolf Hall deservedly won the 2009 Man Booker Prize, the UK’s top honor for its homegrown fiction.9780805090031

So it was with a great deal of excitement and anticipation that I read about Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel’s second novel in the Cromwell series. The reviews (New York Times Book Review, New York Review of Books, London Review of Books, The New Yorker, an especially good one) heightened my anticipation, and then I read that Mantel won the Man Booker Prize with this sequel as well. You couldn’t ask for better odds of an excellent fiction read than this, right?

So why am I not as thrilled after finishing Bring Up the Bodies? I honestly don’t know. Cromwell’s character remains fascinating and sympathetic. He’s hard as nails but generous to his friends and family, sparing but precise in his conversation, unerringly calculating in interactions with powerful people. He mourns his dead wife and children, worries about his sons and wards, cares about his king’s emotional and family life, and even admires his enemies’ skill in avoiding incrimination.

Mantel continues the unique point of view for Cromwell; that is, the reader feels that it’s a first-person perspective, yet it’s told in the third person. The action begins with innocuous action or conversations that become significant as the story builds to the climax of Anne Boleyn’s disgrace and death (with four of her lovers). So Mantel retains the tone and pacing of the first novel, and I certainly enjoyed both. Yet somehow I felt underwhelmed by the book.

Perhaps it was my fault. Almost two-thirds of the book I read over the course of several weeks, a little at a time. Only in the last 100 pages did I put aside other duties (you know how it is when a book finally grabs you and you can’t put it down!) to immerse myself in the story. Perhaps it was my distaste for a television series I’d been watching somewhat simultaneous to the novel: The Tudors, originally aired on Showtime and full of bodice-ripping sex and Jonathan Rhys-Davies glowering in the unfortunately miscast protagonist, Henry VIII. Watching this series’ take on the same history and characters, I just couldn’t get the series out of my head while reading Mantel. My bad.

Yet, for all my failings as a reader, I still enjoyed the read. Cromwell, as Mantel envisions him, is a fascinating character. She also manages to make Anne Boleyn conniving, controlling, irredeemable yet intelligent and a worthy adversary for Cromwell—at the same time that she encourages us to root for Henry’s love for Jane Seymour, a pale and timid woman whose piety attracts the monarch when he’s attempting to establish himself as head of the British church and therefore conscientious of his religiosity. That helps him to cast off Boleyn and prefer the pious Jane.

I’m eager for the third installment of Mantel’s Cromwell series. I think I’ll read it in one sitting, just to ensure I don’t get sidetracked by other influences.


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One Comment
  1. Chris Mills permalink

    I loved both of the installments – but I think as you say it helps to be able to become totally immersed in the period. I picked up Wolf Hall last summer hols so was able to rip into it and then went on to Bring up the Bodies shortly afterwards. I’ve read a lot of Tudor history over the years, but found Mantel’s account of the arrests and trials to be one of the best I’ve come across. Absolutely chilling. Thankfully I had steered well clear of Jonathon Rhys Meyers’ bodice ripping activities at the time!

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