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Posts Tagged ‘Bring Up the Bodies’

I’ve spent several days with Hilary Mantel‘s sequel to Wolf HallBring Up the Bodies. It’s interesting to me that both titles come from references made at the end of these long books, though that’s probably not significant. Just unusual, as is Mantel’s writing style, which takes readers right inside her main character’s head. I noticed she used personal pronoun “he” less in this book than in Wolf Hall, but she still writes in such a way that Thomas Cromwell’s interior life

I thoroughly enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies. On Saturday we were at dinner with friends and one of them had also recently finished Wolf Hall and was reading Bring Up the Bodies. He said he felt the novels are somewhat overrated because they don’t accomplish what he thought they ought to: delving into the major themes of the Tudor period, including the political and religious philosophies which shaped modern England. My friend is very smart and well spoken and we decided that if that is what he is looking for the books don’t meet his needs as a reader — a fair assessment.

But I countered that I don’t think Mantel’s intention is anything other than to present Cromwell as one of the most fascinating characters of the time. Cromwell is the first citizen statesman, not a nobleman, not a man who married into power. He becomes Henry’s right hand man because he is smart and thorough and an excellent reader of men. He trains the young men of his household for statecraft as well, and he treats people fairly — those who cross him and those who are crossed and need an advocate each receive their due.

Mantel herself says in her author’s note in Bring Up the Bodies: “This book is of course not about Anne Boleyn or about Henry VIII, but about the career of Thomas Cromwell, who is still in need of attention from biographers. Meanwhile, Mr. Secretary remains sleek, plump and densely inaccessible, like a choice plum in a Christmas pie, but I hope to continue my efforts to dig him out.”

That is what this trilogy is about, Mantel’s digging up of Cromwell’s mind and heart, the man that he was. She tells us in both broad and fine (and in my opinion brilliant) brushstrokes of the work he did to give his character context, but she is not trying to write history. Her novel is about Cromwell the character, and she uses historical events, sometimes altered a bit to fit her artistic purpose, to present him to readers and not the other way around.

That is not to say these books aren’t “true” — Mantel has done an incredible job in presenting her human drama in gorgeous period detail. And overall the story is accurate, if some of the details are by necessity fictional. Besides, these books are big “T” True in the very best way. Cromwell is fully human, by turns tender and terrible, formidable and even, sometimes, a bit afraid. Mantel makes him live and breathe and have his being: I’d know him anywhere. For me, that is the greatest accomplishment a fiction writer could hope to have.

So if you want a novel that is a careful rendering of historical facts and themes, this isn’t for you (I’d argue actually that fiction is not where you’ll find this at all; if you want facts, read nonfiction). But if you want incredibly rich writing (my aunt describes these books as “a full blown big screen movie running into your head”), a fresh voice like nothing you’ve read in fiction before, read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. I’m very curious to read the final installment when it comes out, and also to try to find time to read some of Mantel’s other work.

This week, with Thanksgiving bringing Teen the Elder home from college, I’ll stick to shorter reads: I’ve got Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, and Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer out from the library. I’m mostly looking forward to hanging out together as a family, cooking, eating, and getting started on our holiday planning. Happy Thanksgiving, and happy reading!

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