Friday, May 18, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Rating

* * * * *

The book's description from the publisher's website:


The sequel to Hilary Mantel's 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, Wolf Hall delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn
Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice.
At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel's Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne's head?
What a pleasure this book was for me! I really enjoyed Wolf Hall, the first book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, but because of the style it was written (present tense, third person), it took some getting used to. Bring Up the Bodies, on the other hand, read a lot more smoothly and Ms. Mantel managed to finally engage my emotional side in this novel. I was honestly surprised how quickly I read it and how deeply I sympathized with Cromwell. Although, not so much with Anne Boleyn. But I did have strong feelings towards her and her behavior nonetheless, which is also a testimony to how much improved Bring Up the Bodies is over Wolf Hall.

Another aspect that I liked is that Mantel doesn't seem to subscribe to any one particular school of thought on Henry VIII or the Boleyns, especially Anne. I felt that the characters were presented to me with as much accuracy as possible and I had the freedom to make out of them what I willed. For example, even though there's mention of witchcraft, no credence is given to it. I still dislike Anne (probably always will) but it is after reading Bring Up the Bodies that I felt compelled to truly reexamine the person behind the name of Thomas Cromwell.

Aaaah, Thomas Cromwell. If you think you know all there is to know about him, I encourage you to read Bring Up the Bodies. I realize that facts speak for themselves but Ms. Mantel managed to open my eyes to possibilities. Before I started reading the Wolf Hall trilogy, I had regarded Cromwell as one of the villains of history. When reading Wolf Hall I began thinking that maybe he wasn't all that bad. Bring Up the Bodies has me question why I disliked Cromwell so strongly to begin with. What can I tell you...Hilary Mantel is a persuasive writer in the study of character. He was a 'nobody' in the eyes of his contemporaries. He had nothing working for him, no dues owed him, no loyalties to fall back on. He truly was a man alone. And he knew it. And as much as he conspired against and/or lied to others, he never hid the truth from himself. You will get no excuses, denials or justifications for Cromwell's deeds. But neither will you get an apology. And maybe that is the singular decision of Mantel's that speaks of her skills most strongly, to offer us no apologies for Cromwell (because maybe she liked him and wanted us to like him too) or condemnation of him and his deeds (because maybe she despised him and wanted us to despise him as well).

The quote below represents to me the true depth of Cromwell's inner pain over losing what he loved and somehow shows the man he was (not to mention, it's also one of the most beautiful to me):

"He once thought it himself, that he might die of grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But the pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone." *

People do not know what the future holds. When the judges awarded Mantel the Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall, they couldn't have known that what followed would be a lot more deserving of that honor Wolf Hall is a brilliant novel but Bring Up the Bodies has that intangible 'something' that allowed me to make the emotional connection I wasn't able to make reading its predecessor. My only suggestion is to read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in succession, without a long lapse of time. I read Bring Up the Bodies right after I finished Wolf Hall, and because I was already acquainted with the somewhat unusual narration, I could just relax and let the story take me where it wanted.

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FTC: I've received a galley of Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel from the publisher, Henry Holt & Co.

*The quote is from an uncorrected proof, please check against a final copy for any inaccuracies.