I was worried that Hilary Mantel’s 2012 Booker-winner Bring Up The Bodies would take me weeks to read. But there was no need to worry – even during a busy and productive weekend, I managed to get through it in five days. YES!
Bring Up The Bodies is the sequel to Wolf Hall (which also won the Booker) and is part two of a projected trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell – the blacksmith’s son who became Henry VIII’s most important advisor. Whilst Wolf Hall detailed Cromwell’s rise to power and his part in the separation of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, this second work follows Cromwell’s attempts to help extricate the king from his marriage to Anne Boleyn. The proceedings of this I knew far more about than I did the early life of Thomas Cromwell. So nothing, here, in the plot, came as a shock, whereas significant developments in Wolf Hall did. I don’t believe this matters.
My ignorance about the factions and sides and significant figures during the beginning of Henry’s reign did not prevent me from enjoying Wolf Hall, just as my deeper knowledge of his second marriage did not ruin Bring Up The Bodies. I would compare the expectation of Anne’s beheading with that of the iceberg in Titanic – the dramatic tension in this novel is not rooted in the overarching narrative it contains, but comes from the distance between characters, from their behaviour and from the artful and sometimes cynical machinations of Thomas Cromwell.
Cromwell, as everyone has already said, is a great character – brilliant, inventive, intelligent, but here showing many more weaknesses and moments of selfishness than in Mantel’s earlier novel. She fills this one, too – whose main timeframe is much shorter than that of Wolf Hall – with asides and “flashbacks” to Cromwell’s younger life in Europe. There is a particularly brilliant bit where he chats to an old man in Venice who spent his life travelling to jousting tournaments – this vignette, filled with visual detail, works excellently as a moment away from the present.
This is a novel that seems to visually capture Tudor England rather magnificently – landscapes, buildings, clothes, are described in great detail, and this is where Mantel’s skill lies – in evoking these fabulous, grand, settings.
In tone, yes, it is almost exactly the same as Wolf Hall, and if you didn’t enjoy the first book I would not suggest this as a way in. Wolf Hall is perhaps more exciting, it was certainly (for me) less predictable, but Bring Up The Bodies is an excellent read – its solid, witty, tersely lyrical prose offers fun historical detail and a deep portrait of a fascinating individual.