Review: Bring Up the Bodies


Hilary Mantel, 2012

I loved Wolf Hall, and its successor Bring Up the Bodies was just as wonderful. The story flows on beautifully from the previous book. Settle down for a literary treat, back in the world of Thomas Cromwell…

Soon Calais was in an uproar. Letters flitting across the Narrow Sea. Master Secretary would like a pretty dog. Find him one, find him one quick, before someone else gets the credit. Lady Lisle, the governor’s wife, wondered if she should part with her own dog. By one hand and another, a half-dozen spaniels were whisked in. Each was parti-coloured and smiling, with a feathered tail and delicate miniature feet. Not one of them was like Purkoy, with his ears pricked, his habit of interrogation. Pourquoi?

Good question.

It is a world sketched out in loving detail, both the political landscape and the sights and smells, the sounds, the textures of this historical world brought to life by Mantel’s incredible prose.

He stood bare-headed by the carved tombs of ancestors… We think time cannot touch the dead, but it touches their monuments, leaving them snub-nosed and stub-fingered from the accidents and attrition of time… If in the late wars of York and Lancaster, their fathers and grandfathers picked the wrong side, they keep quiet about it. A generation on, lapses must be forgiven, reputations remade; otherwise England cannot go forward.

The novel’s tale is meticulously researched and yet seems to flow from her pen (or keyboard) with beautiful spontaneity. One moment a material detail such as the taste of a soup, the next the political relationship between the Emperor of France and the King of England.

Each historical character, familiar from the dusty pages of history books, comes to life with a fleshed-out humanity. The well-known fate of Anne Boleyn is rendered fresh and new to the extent that we almost wonder what will happen next – a great feat and testimony to the vitality of Mantel’s writing. In the words of James Wood (writing for The New Yorker), the story is ‘fragile again, with everything at suspenseful risk.’ Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, agrees: ‘The wonder of Ms. Mantel’s retelling is that she makes these events fresh and terrifying all over again.’

‘If there was some defect in the procedure, your conscience should not trouble you, if you were now to repudiate your oath. Perhaps, you know, it was not even a Bible?’

‘It was bound like a Bible,’ the earl says.

‘I have a book on accountancy that is often mistaken for a Bible.’

‘Especially by you.’

He grins.

Bring Up the Bodies is so accessible and alive, so human (a word I seem to keep coming back to), that it is even applicable to current politics.

All the same: in village alehouses up and down England, they are blaming the King and Anne Boleyn for the weather: the concubine, the great whore… And indeed, who can doubt that everything would be different and better, if only England were ruled by village idiots and their drunken friends?

At the centre of this sweeping portrait of the court (even, at times, of the continent) is Thomas Cromwell, seen – through genius use of third person limited – both introspectively and from the outside – intimidating, calculating, notorious and yet likeable, seen in moments both of power and vulnerability.

‘Why would she do this, such a crime against nature?’

‘The better to rule. Surely you see it? She is lucky with Elizabeth, the child is like her. But suppose she gets a boy and it has Weston’s long face? Or it looks like Will Brereton, what might the king say to that? But they cannot call it a bastard if it looks like a Boleyn.’

Brereton too. He makes a note. He remembers how Brereton once joked with him he could be in two places at once: a chilly joke, a hostile joke, and now, he thinks, now at last, I laugh.

I could try and talk about the wonder of Mantel’s writing style, but I don’t have the words, so here is an example instead (my favourite passage from the book):

Mark has lived in a story of his own devising, where the beautiful princess in her tower hears beyond her casement music of unearthly sweetness. She looks out and sees by moonlight the humble musician with his lute. But unless the musician turns out to be a prince in disguise, this story cannot end well. The doors open and ordinary faces crowd in, the surface of the dream is shattered: you are in Stepney on a warm night at the beginning of spring, the last birdsong is fading into the hush of twilight, somewhere a bolt rattles, a stool is scraped across the floor, a dog barks below the window and Thomas Cromwell says to you, ‘We all want our supper, let’s get on, here is the paper and the ink.’

The structure is so impeccable, the use of language and tropes so unerring… she uses sound instead of sight to slow the fade between fantasy and reality, as if we, with Mark, are waking from a dream, which heightens the brutality of the return to reality when it does come.

The ending, too – not the ending of the plot, which we all know, but the final paragraph – is perfectly written, a clever dissection of language hinting at what is to come in the final instalment of this trilogy… but I’ll let you enjoy it for yourself.

Read 18 September – 20 October 2018

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