Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (Review)

‘Statements, indictments, bills are circulated, shuffled between judges, prosecutors, the Attorney General, the Lord Chancellor’s office; each step in the process clear, logical, and designed to create corpses by due process of law. George Rochford will be tried apart, as a peer; the commoners will be tried first. The order goes to the Tower, ‘Bring Up the bodies.’ Deliver, that is, the accused men, by name Weston, Brereton, Smeaton and Norris, to Westminster Hall for trial.’

Hilary Mantel is one of those rare writers with such an exquisite ability to tell a story in the present tense that you spend most of her narrative blissfully unaware that she’s doing it at all. It is through this remarkable gift that Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Wolf Hall and the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, achieves everything that present tense writing is supposed to achieve, without all that tedious mucking-about in the suspense-driven, overly-staccato and pointlessly exhausting drivel that usually results when an author tries to do this without having the slightest idea how to do it properly. Mantel makes us live Thomas Cromwell, our extraordinary protagonist, and see things not just from his perspective but from within his consciousness – constantly on our toes, constantly watching, constantly questioning, and constantly doing whatever we must, hour to hour, minute to minute, to cement our position as Henry VIII’s new chief minister during the fall of Anne Boleyn, and to always serve our country well. Our lives often come to resemble an out-of-body experience as we twist and turn and adapt to the characteristics of each person we plot with or against. We are helped along by steering clear of strong emotion; doing this helps us to think clearly; but regrettably, like everyone else, we’re human, and sometimes; not often, but sometimes; cracks start to appear; and disappear just as quickly. And in the midst of all this there is England; a country reeling under the uncertainty of a new faith that is also the uncertainty of an old identity; England that is threatened and England that must be governed. And there is always Henry. He needs to be governed too.

Mantel’s Cromwell has the strongest and most distinctive narrative voice since Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day; a charisma so powerful that it seems to rise off the page, but that is also unassuming and incredibly subtle; the charisma of a listener, not a talker; the charisma of a man observing his world from the inside, but also from the outside; an intelligent, cosmopolitan and multilingual blacksmith’s son in the midst of the aristocracy, who understands his surroundings, but will never succeed in getting his surroundings to understand him.

Through Cromwell’s steady and penetrating gaze, the gorgeous furnishings, costumes and pomp and circumstance of the traditional costume drama are stripped right down to the bone, and we understand, while watching the Boleyns’ fall through Cromwell’s eyes, that this period in history was never really about magnificent houses or beautiful costumes at all; but about the people who lived inside them, and what the landscapes beneath their skin actually looked like. The prose is perfect, the characterisation a work of genius, and the enormous cast of characters prodigiously juggled in a way that makes each pawn in its game distinctive and recognisable. A gorgeous, absorbing novel that fully deserves its Booker Prize, it makes those of us who have not read Wolf Hall want to go out and buy it immediately, and those of us who have to wish fervently that The Mirror and the Light was here already.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. Servetus says:

    Yes, yes, yes. She’s as good a historical novelist as Mann (my historical novelist hero) and maybe better because not so mannered. I thought Wolf Hall was better than the second by a hair, but perhaps only because I don’t think I’d ever read a historical novel like Wolf Hall in English (w/possible exception of books by Geraldine Brooks).

    1. ladygilraen says:

      I’ve never read Wolf Hall, but I’m really keen to now, particularly as regards Cromwell’s relationship with Wolsey; which sounds absolutely fascinating.

      1. Servetus says:

        If I’d have thought it was possible to write a book like Wolf Hall, I’d have skipped grad school in history and gone in creative writing …

      2. ladygilraen says:

        Nah, if you ever decide to go into historical fiction then history will serve you well. This kind of writing comes from the history, it is where the characters come from, from the history and from inside the writer. It’s just a question of where the research takes you and into what parts of a character’s head and your own.

      3. Servetus says:

        I thought about it, but … uch.

        So many historical fiction authors don’t seem to get that a historical novel has to succeed both as history and as fiction. That is, it just can’t get things wrong. Writing notes about anachronisms the author is conscious of is not helpful — the historical novel relies really heavily on its verisimilitude, maybe more so than other genres. But it also has to work as a novel — in particular for me it has to do that dance around the inner lives of the character(s). What always stuns me about Mantel is the way she plumbs Cromwell’s inner life in such an effective way, to say something both about the 16th c. and the 21st, about the increased rate of the passing of time and awareness of the past that are so full of pregnant possibility in both these periods — a parallel that she totally gets and exploits, but without perverting the history (political or social or material).

        OK, will stop gushing now.

      4. ladygilraen says:

        Thanks for gushing!

      5. Servetus says:

        I read the whole Booker shortlist the year that Wolf Hall won — and AS Byatt’s historical novel from that list was also really, really excellent, btw 🙂

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