Bring up the Bodies review

11 May 2012

“There is a time to stand on your dignity, but there is a time to abandon it in the interests of your safety. There is a time to smirk behind the hand of cards you have drawn, and there is a time to throw down your purse on the table and say, ‘Thomas Cromwell, you win.'”

Well, it took just over a day but I now return having finished Bring up the Bodies. I’m still crying actually – the last line just made me howl and I’m not even sure why. I think it might just have been released tension as the last part of the book, which covers the condemnation and execution of Anne Boleyn was jaw droppingly tense and had me literally holding my breath in shock as I read it.

This is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible books I have ever read. Long term readers of this blog will know all about my passionate adoration of Wolf Hall and I would say that its sequel, Bring up the Bodies somehow contrives to be even better. It’s as if Hilary Mantel has taken all the grandiose, fanciful and essentially beautiful conceits of language that made Wolf Hall such a joy to read and took them even further, creating a dazzling vision of the Tudor court – venal, lustful and gorgeously opulent in the extreme.

Thomas Cromwell, that most unlikely of heroes, is the star of the show though, and here he is revealed to be even more crafty, intelligent, jocular, likeable and, above all, humane. He is so overbrimming with humanity in fact that he began to seem more real, more life like than actual people I know. ‘I know Thomas Cromwell better than I know my own husband,’ I thought at one point. ‘Or do I?’ I still love him though. Thomas Cromwell, I mean. He’s no angel and, let’s face it, we all know that he had a face that only a mother could love but I still would. Oh crikey yes. As with Wolf Hall, I found myself having daydreams about time slippy wish fulfilment in which I slide into the pages and find myself in Austin Friars. ‘Marry me, Thomas Cromwell!’ I’d say as he examined my iPhone with keen interest and perhaps a little bit of panic. ‘I don’t care about your squashed face, your sausage fingers and your dubious past! Teach me how to swear like a sixteenth century Londoner and then arrange my face before I meet the king. So long as you don’t mind the fact that I have pink hair and talk with a funny accent.’

Ahem. I’ve given rather too much thought to this.

Thomas Cromwell. Photo: Frick Collection.

Bring up the Bodies is a much more compact novel than Wolf Hall but it still manages to cover a lot of ground as it examines the events surrounding the sudden and devastating fall of Anne Boleyn. I read it at a gallop and loved every minute of this but it is also a book to savour, to allow to unfold. You don’t necessarily need to have read Wolf Hall either to enjoy this as I think it could stand very well on its own two feet, however I think your enjoyment would be increased if you read both in order as the subtle seeds of what will come are all sown in the first book. Also, I’d hate anyone to miss out on the joy that is Wolsey in all his glory or the budding peculiarity between Cromwell and the breathlessly skittish Mary Boleyn.

As with Wolf Hall, this has an immense cast of characters but each is so distinctly and lovingly drawn that you won’t have trouble telling them apart. You’ll find no cardboard cutout Tudor courtiers here, no two dimensional snivelling toadies in silk doublets. This I think is one of Hilary Mantel’s many gifts as a writer – the ability to give every single character, no matter how obscure, flesh, to reveal the skull beneath the skin.

I don’t think this is a book for the Anne Boleyn fan girls out there to be honest. As in Wolf Hall, she is portrayed as a heartless schemer who will stop at nothing to get her own way, a screeching, shrill, petulant woman who inspires the men around her with fear and uncomfortable lust. I won’t give away the conclusions, ambiguously drawn but I think still clear, that Mantel and by extension Cromwell make about Anne’s much discussed guilt but her trial and execution made me shiver in horror even though I was all out of sympathy with her by the time the blow falls.

Jane Seymour is the surprise here, I think. I’ve never really rated her very much but I like Hilary Mantel’s version – a pale, silent but rather prosaic girl given to surprisingly disconcerting pronouncements. I look forward to reading more about her in the third and last book of the trilogy. I’m also very much looking forward to Mantel’s take on poor little Catherine Howard.

In summary, this is a glorious book, possibly the best I have ever read alongside A Place of Greater Safety and Wolf Hall, that plunges the reader headlong into the murky, fast moving waters of Henry VIII’s court and creates a world, dangerous and terrifying though it may be, that I just didn’t want to leave. An astonishing and brave work. I’m now desperate for the last part, although I know I’m going to fall apart at the end.

Bring up the Bodies

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