Tag Archives: Man Booker prizewinner

Review of Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

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I read Wolf Hall and was blown away by the quality of the writing, depth of characterisation and vivid worldbuilding – see my review here. Would I enjoy the sequel as much?

bringupthebodiesBring Up the Bodies unlocks the darkly glittering court of Henry VIII, where Thomas Cromwell is now chief minister. With Henry captivated by plain Jane Seymour and rumours of Anne Boleyn’s faithlessness whispered by all, Cromwell knows what he must do to secure his position. But the bloody theatre of the queen’s final days will leave no one unscathed…

I called this a sequel, but Mantel has written this in such a way that it stands alone and prior knowledge of Wolf Hall is completely unnecessary. Although I suppose if you come to Bring Up the Bodies without accessing Cromwell’s earlier life, you may find the present tense and confusion between his internal dialogue and spoken words a slight obstacle before you completely relax into this book. This time around, it didn’t remotely bother me – I already knew that Mantel was far too adroit a technician to mishandle fundamentals like tense and viewpoint.

Once more, I was impressed at the speed and ease with which I was drawn into this hectic, cagey world of Henry VIII’s court. I studied this period of history at O level, A level and as a major component of my History degree – in addition I also played Margaret in Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons at the Brownsea Island Open Air Theatre longer ago than I care to remember. So I’m not going to be seduced by any ‘shocking’ twists in this cat’s cradle of political and romantic intrigue – I already thoroughly know who the main players are and how it’s all going to end. And yet, Mantel still had me beguiled by Anne’s mood swings as she tries to produce the much-needed male heir in the face of Henry’s increasing intolerance for her smart mouth and sharp-edged brilliance.

Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell is mesmerising. He is wearier, more cynical and bitterly aware of just how precarious his position is – and still determined to see certain people in Henry’s court suffer for a particular insulting piece of court buffoonery at Wolsey’s expense just after his fall from grace. Despite seeing the world through our protagonist’s intelligent viewpoint, there were times when I shivered at Cromwell’s cold determination to be revenged on those who so publically disrespected his former patron – and recalled that in most accounts of this period, Cromwell is depicted as the main villain of the piece. A role he is only too well aware he is playing – and why. Henry needs someone to blame for his more unpopular policies when he is busy being ‘good king Hal’. Anyone who is in any doubt about his ruthlessness, however, can ponder at his personal decision to mark Catherine of Aragon’s death by wearing yellow in celebration, or his determined pursuit of Jane Seymour even as Anne is languishing in prison.

It is fascinating watching events unfold through the prism of Cromwell’s viewpoint – and feel the jolt as the list of names of those reputed to have shared Anne’s bed grows ever longer… It is a testament to Mantel’s writing that for the first time in a very long while, I shared Cromwell’s sense of horror when the fragile Tudor dynasty teeters, thanks to a faithless queen. As the book came to an end, I was sorry to leave the brutal, knife-edged world Cromwell inhabits – and delighted to realise that Mantel is intending to write the next instalment in this complicated character’s life.

If you have ever enjoyed any of the many fictionalised accounts about Henry VIII’s reign, then track down both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Both are a tour de force and thoroughly deserving of the Man Booker prize – and if I was asked to choose between them, then it would have to be Bring Up the Bodies – for the sheer brilliance in braiding the historical facts amongst the created characterisation of Cromwell. For once, the hyperbole splashed across the cover is merited when the Sunday Telegraph critic declares, ‘This ongoing story of Henry VIII’s right-hand man is the finest piece of historical fiction I have ever read.’ Which neatly sums up exactly how I also felt about this particular book.
10/10

Review of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

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I came across this book the day after a good friend had given it a glowing review and expressed shocked surprise that I hadn’t yet read it – so of course I couldn’t let it languish on the shelf, could I?

Now, this is where I normally type up the blurb. But I’m not going to – because there isn’t any. Nope. Other than a few lines of advertising fluff on the back cover along the lines of: This wonderful Man Booker prizewinning book about Thomas Cromwell is really, really worth reading… I suppose when a book gets the amount of exposure that Wolf Hall has received, then extra explanation is unnecessary.

Suffice to say, that it charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell, widely regarded as one of history’s bad men.  What is undeniable is that this wolf hallis a remarkable book. Mantel instantly had me off-balance with her present tense, third person deep POV when we first meet Cromwell being beaten by Walter, his drunken father, and he is lying on the ground trying to summon up the will to move. So Mantel quickly gains our sympathy for her protagonist – but rather than chart his adventures in Europe where he spent time as a mercenary and scholar – we then jump to when he is in Cardinal Wolsey’s employ and establishing himself as a man of substance. The biggest problem for Mantel in choosing this period of history, is that many of us know the progression of events all too well – so how to pull us into the story and keep us turning the pages of this door-stopper? Well, the use of present tense throughout gives this book pace and immediacy. While she certainly charts the major events in Henry’s constant struggles to persuade the Pope to annul his marriage to Katherine in favour of Anne Boleyn, it is Cromwell’s musings and highly personal take on what is going on around him that bounces off the page.

I haven’t read Mantel before – so was sort of expecting a conscientious, if skilful, reiteration of the steadily growing sense of urgency and danger that gained momentum as Henry’s desperation at being thwarted grew. But she does nothing of the sort. Mantel plays with those expectations – and then confounds them.  Her portrait of Cromwell as a complicated, brilliant and restless man with huge amounts of physical and mental energy is wonderful and builds gradually in slices of showing, not telling. By the end, I knew all sorts of snippets about him – including his love and knowledge of good food; his enjoyment of comfort and the good things in life; his love of small dogs; his concern for poor people in the district; his distaste for torture and burning; his pragmatic view of religion. But she doesn’t omit the sense of menace he exudes and the fact that he enjoys bullying men – particularly those who are high-born.

We are also treated to passages of poetic beauty as he muses on the meaning of life and death. And his grief when in a single year he loses his wife and daughters to the sweating sickness – a blow from which he never truly recovers. Mantel’s grip on her narrative timeline is so confident she regularly allows Cromwell’s internal musings to range across tracts of his life we know little of – without giving the reader much explanation of the context. It is only as we are treated to a series of these reflections, we can start to build a fuller picture of how Cromwell comes to be as he is – and why he so dislikes Thomas Moore, for instance.

So… having read to the end – and knowing that the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, must inevitably chart Cromwell’s fall from Henry’s favour, am I up for plunging into the next brick-sized book in this duology? Oh, absolutely. Wouldn’t miss it for the world. Furthermore, if you have also somehow managed to miss the froth and excitement that these books have generated – get hold of Wolf Hall and give it a go. There is a solid reason why it is the most read of all Man Booker prizewinning books.
10/10