Last year I read Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize winning novel about Thomas Cromwell and I have to say that Wolf Hall was one of the most memorable reads of the year. Initially it took me a bit to get into Wolf Hall; once I had the time and opportunity to immerse myself in the novel I quickly grew to love it.
Bring up the Bodies is Hilary Mantel’s sequel to Wolf Hall and details the fall and execution of Anne Boleyn. This is an absolute cliff-hanging, nail-biter of a novel. I’m assuming that we all know that Cromwell quickly rose to power as Henry the VIII’s secretary, assisted in bringing about Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, played a vital role in the downfall, trial, and execution of Anne Boleyn, and was eventually executed after the entire Anne of Cleves debacle.
Wolf Hall was a patient, beautifully-written, “slow-build” sort of novel composed of many historical characters with differing loyalties, backgrounds, and emotions that had to be put into place. This is the elaborate stage being set and Bring up the Bodies is a fast-paced, bloody, suspenseful play. The end of the trilogy, I’m predicting, will be a most violent denouement.
Mantel succeeds in writing both an engaging external plot — with all of the spying and affairs and head chopping and such — and masterfully writing an engrossing internal plot. I’m just as interested in what is going on in Cromwell’s head as much as I am interested in the next alleged suitor’s downfall. There is one particular part of the novel where the tension is so pitch-perfect and I literally found myself holding my breath. Henry is injured in a jousting tournament and is believed dead. In a few brief pages Cromwell is at Henry’s bedside in a tent and he is very aware of everything going on: the Boleyns are puffed up and ready to rule, Lady (Princess) Mary is in danger, a person to govern for Ann’s unborn child needs to be decided, he must ensure that Anne doesn’t rule, and the entire country is on the brink of civil war. Cromwell is surrounded by enemies and if the King falls Cromwell is nothing. Well, most likely he will be dead. Luckily, Henry lives and Cromwell manages to quell any rising arguments for the time being. It was an intense scene.
The action isn’t the only thing going for Bringing up the Bodies, the writing is still amazing even when disgusting. Here is a snippet of a description of Anne Boleyn from early on in the book:
“Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them: he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.” (page 38, unpublished review copy)
Although physical violence is the very fiber of this novel, it is the psychological gameplay, the interrogations, and sense of ending time all written with style, wit, and power that deepens the suspense of the plot. A fascinating, engrossing, and quick read, Bring up the Bodies has me both yearning and dreading the final book. The last book detailing Cromwell’s demise is sure to be filled with violence, conflict, and some damn fine writing.
Full Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided by Macmillian for review.