A superb tour de force

2012-07-25 00:00


Bring Up The Bodies

Hilary Mantel

Fourth Estate

HILARY Mantel won the Man Booker Prize with her monumental Wolf Hall , and here she continues her overview of Henry VIII’s reign through the eyes of his sinister fixer, Thomas Cromwell.

He is an unlikely hero, historically an immensely powerful civil servant, but one who is curiously unknowable, despite a generally bad press. This gives Mantel plenty of room for manoeuvre — we may know what happened, and even why, but the personalities, four-and-a-half centuries on, are open to interpretation.

Once again, Mantel writes in the first person: something that I found disconcerting at the start of the first book, but, when you stop to think about it, it is a clever device.

Most readers, even if they know very little about English Tudor history, know what happened to Anne Boleyn and her predecessor and successor as Henry’s queens. So to keep tension in the retelling of the story, it makes sense to give it immediacy through the eyes of the protagonist. Cromwell was the ultimate cause of Anne’s downfall, but he — according to Mantel anyway — had not pre-planned the events. He is reacting as the situation develops, and so the reader absorbs the dramatic tension just as he does.

The title of the first novel was only explained at the end, when Henry and his entourage were about to go to Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymour family. This is where the second novel begins, with a glimpse of the plain, quiet Jane Seymour, who will catch the king’s jaded interest. And once again, the title of this book will be explained towards the end of the story.

Mantel’s writing is beautiful, and the book is, once again, a tour de force. Cromwell is a complex, terrifying figure, with blood on his hands. But the author’s supreme skill is to give him a voice that attracts the reader at the same time as it repels.

The jowly, small-eyed figure of Hans Holbein’s portrait comes to life in a way that is disturbing and haunting. Roll on the next episode, where, as Cromwell must come closer to his own unpleasant end, the tension will surely ratchet up even more.


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