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Book Review: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel is Marvellous, Say Critics

By Periscope @periscopepost

Anne Boleyn, whose downfall is told in Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Anne Boleyn, portrait

The background

Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Booker-Prize-winning Wolf Hall sold in the hundreds of thousands. It concerned Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII, and cast him in an entirely new light, as the hero of the piece, whilst Thomas More was seen as a tiresome prig. Mantel was initially going to write one sequel, “The Mirror and the Light,”  but then found that she had a whole book on her hands once she’d finished the story of Anne Boleyn – Bring up the Bodies, published this week by Fourth Estate.

The plot sees Henry staying at Wolf Hall, the home of the Seymours; he wishes to marry Jane Seymour; Cromwell helping to overthrow Anne Boleyn. Henry is beginning to become a bit of a nuisance, too, as he longs desperately for a male heir to avoid civil war. Critics are ecstatic.

“Cromwell’s mind may drift into reverie and fond anecdote, but he does not have loose or undisciplined thoughts. He is reticent, taut, controlled: a master of his silences, and prosecutor of other people’s,” said James Wood in The New Yorker

A reflection of our own times

Will we never tire of the Tudors? asked Margaret Atwood in The Guardian. Mantel begins with a beautiful scene in which Cromwell is flying his hawks: “And we’re off, into [his] deep, dark, labyrinthine, but strangely objective mind.” Cromwell is a “self-aware narrator”, but he “also has corners of tenderness.” We also see “the texture of how it feels to be sliding into a perilous dictatorship.” Perhaps it reflects our own times, “when democracies appear to be slipping back into the dungeon-filled shadowland of arbitrary power.” And Mantel is “as deft and verbally adroit as ever.”

The best book since…

Though Wolf Hall is a “hard act to follow,” said Andrew Motion in The Times, Mantel “rises to the challenge with marvelous confidence.” Her canvas here is much smaller, focusing on the events around Anne Boleyn’s demise. Towards the end, Mantel shows “the same grim haste that we find at the end of a Shakespearean tragedy” as the bodies pile up. The book asks “to what extent are individuals responsible for their fate?” It’s a “richly self-sufficient pleasure.” This is the best historical novel to be published since – well, Wolf Hall.

The Wheel of Fortune

The book is “about the emergence of modern politics as we know it,” said Scotland on Sunday. It’s “even more finely grained than its predecessor.” It’s also the “fulcrum” of the proposed three books. Here, in Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell reaches the apex of the Wheel of Fortune. It’s “richly imagined,” “compelling”, and “mellifluous.” And it’s “very much a 21st century novel about the 16th century .” Mantel’s “version of Cromwell – blunt and sly, endearing and calculating – is already a contemporary classic.” We look forward to her next with excitement.

A new layer of reality

That’s true about the 21st century, said James Wood in The New Yorker. Mantel “seems to have written a very good modern novel, then changed all her fictional names to English historical figures of the fifteen-twenties and thirties. Mantel understands that it’s the “animate” detail, not the “accurate”, that “gives fiction its vitality.” She’s made a “third category of the reality, the plausibly hypothetical.” She’s “almost incapable of abstraction or fraudulence; she instinctively grabs for the reachably real.” She is “alive, silvery, alert, rapid with insight.” And Mantel is novelistically intelligent in a way that Susan Sontag or Peter Ackroyd, for instance, could never hope to be.

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