It’s quite interesting reading and reviewing a book long after it’s been both critically acclaimed and a commercial success. I like to come to books knowing as little as possible about them – impossible in this case, which leads you to begin reading expecting it to be amazing.
Bring Up the Bodies, as we all know, is the sequel to the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Wolf Hall. As with any book that garners that amount of attention, people’s reactions to it covered the spectrum of possible reactions. My own was mixed: it was okay. I liked the idea of taking Thomas Cromwell as the central character and the time period’s an interesting one, but using ‘he’ to refer to Cromwell was confusing and I found myself having to reread chunks of text to work out who was doing what.
That seems to have largely been resolved in Bring Up the Bodies – more so because we’re aware of it before beginning reading, rather than due to any change in Mantel’s narrative style.
The novel begins at Wolf Hall:
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and the riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are the sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breast is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws.
Immediately we are back in Tudor England. We’ve been reminded that Cromwell’s wife and girls are dead and that this is a brutal regime where Henry VIII gets what he wants because Cromwell provides it for him.
In this novel, that’s going to be the removal of Anne Boleyn – unable to provide Henry with the male heir he’s desperate for – and the installation of Jane Seymour. Watching the way the women are treated – regardless of any power they think they may have – is fascinating, the details of such Mantel provides through some incredibly powerful descriptions:
Anne was wearing, that day, rose pink and dove grey. The colours should have had a fresh maidenly charm; but all he could think of were stretched innards, umbles and tripes, grey-pink intestines looped out of a living body; he had a second batch of recalcitrant friars to be dispatched to Tyburn, to be slit up and gralloched by the hangman. They were traitors and deserved the death, but it is a death exceeding most in cruelty. The pearls around her neck looked to him like little beads of fat, and as she argued she would reach up and tug them; he kept his eyes on her fingertips, nails flashing like tiny knives.
I found Bring Up the Bodies enormously enjoyable. The focus, the incredible prose, the humour (oh yes, it’s funny too) all meant that I was utterly engrossed.
Is it amazing? Yes it is.