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Book Review – Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel – 4 stars

Book cover Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Book cover Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

After being gripped by Man Booker prize winner (2009) Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel from cover to cover it was with great expectation that I read the sequel Bring up the Bodies. Astonishingly Bring up the Bodies also won the Man Booker Prize in 2012. She is only the third writer and the first British writer to win the prize twice and surely it’s never been won by books 1 and 2 of a trilogy, an indication that the prize really is judged on merit. Somehow Mantel brings history to life and skillfully creates page turning suspense in the court of Henry VIII. It’s true that it’s an exciting and tumultuous time in England’s history but it’s a time that’s been covered repeatedly over the centuries and I think it’s very talented of Mantel to sort through the extraneous and boring to deliver a tight story that has the reader engrossed through the entire long novel.When the book opens in the late summer of 1535, Henry, wearying of Anne Boleyn, who has failed to supply him with a male heir, already has his eye on shy, dull, plain Jane Seymour, for whom even her family doesn’t have much use until they see the advantages of being related to the queen.

“She is very plain. What does Henry see in her?'”
“He thinks she’s stupid. He finds it restful.”

It’s interesting to see the story presented from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell rather than being a salacious account of Henry’s sexual conquests and executions. Mantel creates in Cromwell a believable character with aspirations, flaws, acts of generosity and weakness. I particularly enjoy reading the descriptions of life in Cromwell’s house at Austin Friars. He’s so warm and human at home with his huge household of family, trainees, staff and guests that it’s almost hard to believe his need for revenge on those who orchestrated and celebrated the death of Cardinal Wolsey.

He once thought it himself, that he might die with grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But 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.

I’ve never studied the history of England so I don’t know how well researched it is but it seems completely believable to me and shares many plot similarities with the recent and popular 4 series TV show The Tudors. As a teenager I read Utopia and was intrigued to read at the time about the author Thomas Moore being arrested for treason, imprisoned in the Tower of London and then executed. Until reading Wolf Hall I couldn’t understand how someone could go from being friend to the king to committing treason and being executed.

You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.

This is a very interesting and captivating historical fiction and Mantel has set a difficult standard for others to attempt to achieve.

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