“Already you can feel the autumn. You know there will not be many more days like these; so let us stand, the horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western counties stretching into a haze of blue…”
Hilary Mantel is one of those writers who can write the same book over and over and still make it great every time (two Bookers, anyone?). She’s also one of those writers who have such a distinctive style that you could basically do a blind taste test and still be able to tell it was her. That voice, that direct address to the reader, that low-key lyricism, the way she can sound both archaic and utterly modern at the same time…this is one of the keys to how she does what she does.
The other two keys, I think, are premise and character. I’ve read three of her novels now, and all three were set at a time of great change and social upheaval, and all three ended with a trial and an execution. Compelling stuff to frame a book around. And the characters! She manages to go to her chosen time period and pull out the one person who’s got what we hunger for as readers. The person who contains the most contradictions, someone we can love and hate, the charismatic outsider — we feel sympathy that everybody hates them but also joy and admiration when they come out on top. In their own world, these people draw others to themselves, and so they also draw us to them as readers.
That’s Thomas Cromwell for you.
In “Bring Up the Bodies,” he is secure in his position as King Henry’s main man, and Henry trusts him enough that a late-night complaint about dissatisfaction in his second marriage can lead to a swift and expeditious overhauling of everything the two spent “Wolf Hall” trying to build up.
“Bring Up the Bodies” does suffer a bit from “previously in the Cromwell trilogy” syndrome, especially in the first half, where much of what happens feels like recaps and reiterations of the stuff that happened in “Wolf Hall.” (So if you haven’t read that, and a 350-page book appeals to you more than a 500+ page one does, you’re in good shape.) But in the second half, when the plot to take down Anne Boleyn starts to come together, it gets to be just as good.
“BUTB” feels like the most stripped down of the three Mantel novels I’ve read. “A Place of Greater Safety” (heroes and villains of the French Revolution, more or less) culminated in the mess of the Reign of Terror, trial after trial, baroque and wild and all over the place. “Wolf Hall” was much more focused and streamlined but was still a long book with many characters and settings, culminating in the battle of wits between the two Thomases before More’s execution.
In “BUTB,” Anne — who held her own against Cromwell in “WH” — is totally neutralized as an opponent. As soon as Henry turns against her, she is as good as dead, and all Cromwell really has to do is execute the plan. In terms of scenes, it’s the most stripped down, and the coldest in terms of emotion. It’s beautiful but quiet and muted, exquisite but rather formal.
Still, it ends with the perfect mike drop, and we are reminded that there is still one more book in this trilogy, and one more execution — Cromwell’s own.
“There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.”