Original date of publication: 2012
My edition: 2012 (Henry Holt)
Why I decided to read: review copy was offered by the publisher
How I acquired my copy: Review copy from the publisher, April 2012
Bring Up the Bodies has been anticipated greatly by me (and I’m sure many others) ever since I read Hilary Mantel’s fabulous Wolf Hall in 2009. The second book in a trilogy, Bring up the Bodies begins in 1535 and covers the dissolution of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn and her execution in 1536.
While this book covers the strange events of that time, the book is actually more about Thomas Cromwell—the enigmatic, far-range-thinking mastermind behind both the Katherine of Aragon divorce and Anne Boleyn’s trial. To read this novel properly, it must be remembered that Cromwell is the star of this show, not Henry or Anne. Cromwell is one of most fascinating figures of Tudor England—and in this book and in Wolf Hall, Mantel portrays him in a more positive light than previous novels and films have. Cromwell was not good at showing emotion, which served him well in politics at court. He had an ironic, often sarcastic sense of humor. You are not going to connect emotionally with Cromwell’s character. Rather, this book makes you want to know more about what must have been going on in his head. People around him avoided, even disliked, him for a good reason: he was probably very difficult to get close to or to understand.
Because he, Cromwell, truly was a mastermind: shrewd, anticipating every contingency. For that reason he is little interested in his past, so although his deceased wife and children pop up every now and then, he does not dwell on the past. He is interested in metaphor, constantly comparing one thing with another. Part of Cromwell’s position entailed understanding and anticipating his master; but while he sought to serve Henry VIII, he still has his own interests at heart. He is cynical about the motives of the people around him and trusts no one—not even Henry.
It seems that Hilary Mantel listened to her Wolf Hall readers—she is much clearer with her pronouns this time around. Her previous book covers a larger time span; this book only covers a period of nine months, so the pace of this novel is breakneck. Less attention is given to the plot or outcome of the book, which the reader knows anyways; Mantel’s skill lies in being concise. Usually, historical fiction written in the present tense drives me nuts, but I hardly even noticed with this novel; Mantel’s prose is seamless. There are probably hundreds of novels out there about the downfall of Anne Boleyn, but this one stands head and shoulders (no pun intended) above the rest.