Wednesday 19 June 2013

Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Despite its runaway success, I didn't get round to reading Wolf Hall for a while, mainly because my most reliable friends weren't too sure about it. They (independently) found the narrative confusing, frequently referring to 'he' without it being clear who 'he' was. Eventually I thought I'd decide for myself and took the hardback on holiday, lugging it like a brick in a sandstorm around the beaches of Cornwall.

The reason I kept carrying it was because I was hooked - by Hilary Mantel's use of language, her detailed depictions of the fabric of Tudor domesticity and her envisioning of the much reworked courtly rise of Anne Boleyn from the fresh perspective of that previously underwritten commoner-made-good, Thomas Cromwell. to me, it was clear that when 'he' is unnamed, despite the proliferation of Thomases, it's always Cromwell that's being referred to, because the novel is written from his point of view. To be fair, I did have the advantage of tackling large chunks of story in one go and would most likely have found the odd page or two before dropping off to sleep much more challenging.

In Bring up the Bodies, the second of Mantel's trilogy which has already won her a second Booker Prize, she addresses my friends' criticism by frequently writing 'he, Cromwell'. This may succeed in clearing up any confusion, but does reduce the immediacy between Cromwell and the reader, the feeling of standing in his increasingly expensive shoes. Despite this, the moment I opened the book I was basking once more in glorious prose, feasting on Mantel's opulent re-imagining of events
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horse-back, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze.
Thus the scene of hawks in flight is set. Cromwell is Master of the Rolls now, sleek and powerful as the enforcer who has rid the King of his first wife at the cost of disestablishing the church, only to find Henry quickly wanting rid of the second, the one he risked everything for. The bones of this story are all too familiar, but Cromwell's viewpoint is as intriguing as ever. The sense remains that he (as written by Mantel) is an unparalleled reader of motive, one pace ahead of his compatriots; the cleverest man in any Tudor room.

In Wolf Hall, I loved Cromwell's evaluation of a person by the provenance and quality of their cloth and was a little disappointed that this diminished in the second volume. It would also have been illuminating to find out more about his close personal relationships; those with women are tantalisingly slight. But Mantel makes up for this with Cromwell's reflections on his life
I never lay awake a night for love, though poets tell me that is the procedure. Now I lay awake for its opposite.
After the long build up to power through marriage in Wolf Hall, the speed of Queen Anne's demise is shocking, as is Cromwell's pivotal role in it. The facts of her conviction are as slippery as the blood spilled by a beheading, but Cromwell's view, once his mind is made up, is unwavering.

Still, he is filled with foreboding by the die-hard English Catholic establishment with whom he reluctantly allies himself, not least the Seymours who see one of their own married to the King within nine days of Anne's death. The niggle I had in Wolf Hall that Cromwell might be too sympathetically portrayed is eradicated by the number of executions he sanctions, all the while calculating that the sands of his time at the King's right hand are running out.

Whatever my criticisms they are minor, because this is another masterpiece from Mantel. Perhaps the judges of the Women's Prize for Fiction were unwilling to vote for the obvious when they didn't choose this book or perhaps they were ready for a change. Whatever the reason, at the moment I find it hard to believe that Bring up the Bodies could be bettered, apart from perhaps by the final instalment of this trilogy.

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