Book Review 6: “Bring Up the Bodies”

Genre Fiction
Have in the Library? Yes

This book begins with the dead: his children (his, Thomas Cromwell’s), Grace and Anne, briefly reborn in the guise of royal falcons carrying their names. As they drift above the English countryside, Mantel paints the scene:

The horseboys of Wolf Hall swarming around us, Wiltshire and the western countries stretching into a haze of blue; let us stand, the king’s hand on his shoulder, Henry’s face earnest as he talks his way back through the landscape of the day, the green copses and rushing streams, the alders by the water’s edge, the early haze that lifted by nine; the brief shower, the small wind that died and settled; the stillness, the afternoon heat.

It’s 1535 and King Henry VIII is going across the countryside for sport. Henry here is childlike, with England as his playground for falconry and courting, while Europe falls into chaos. Cromwell, his handler, watches on the sidelines, at the whim of the King but secure in the knowledge that it is really his hand that controls the court and country.

“Bring Up the Bodies” is the second novel in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy. The first, “Wolf Hall,” charts Cromwell’s unlikely rise to power and first forays in Henry’s court. Now in “Bring Up the Bodies,” we find Cromwell firmly established with a happy household and a prominent position as Secretary to the King. The final book, “The Mirror and the Light,” is slated to come out later this year.

Though the storyline picks up immediately from where “Wolf Hall” ended, this book stands alone. I liked it better than its predecessor. The action is more tightly packed, the writing tauter, and everything is tuned just a little bit darker. The endless court intrigue that bogged down “Wolf Hall” is pared down here and the events go by at a rapid pace. Cromwell is also different. Now with years at court behind him, his cruel side is starting to show as he tries any means possible to sabotage Anne Boleyn. Here we get a more tragic Cromwell. Though he seems to slide through the days as smoothly as ever, inside he is eaten up by loss: the deaths of his wife, daughters and former master Cardinal Wolsey.

As someone who hasn’t studied British history, I had no idea who Thomas Cromwell was. Anne Boleyn and Henry were just names. There is a lot of history going on here to be sure; place names and people names and levels of hierarchy that I occasionally found myself glossing over. I don’t always like historical fiction for this reason, but in “Bring Up the Bodies,” those details are just background noise. Following the rise and fall of fortunes, you are swept up and see the events taking place as though you are really there.

What makes the difference in Mantel’s writing is her sense of time. She writes in present tense, which should feel strange but isn’t. In doing so, Mantel implies that the past is present. Though different in details, the dramas of the Tudor court are presented as just as urgent as any contemporary politics today. The consequences are just as deadly.

The book ends with the dead, this time Anne Boleyn, “Anne sans tête.” The chapter on her trial and the execution is one of the best written scenes as Mantel spares nothing in depicting the brutality of the proceedings. Yet it’s her quieter passages that are most powerful, as in the last chapter where Cromwell reflects:

When the time comes I may vanish before the ink is dry. I will leave behind me a great mountain of paper, and those who come after me…they will sift through what remains and remark, here is an old deed, an old draft, an old letter from Thomas Cromwell’s time: they will turn the page over, and write on me.

“Bring Up the Bodies” is a portrait of a time in history, when plagues stalked the land and when a shift in power was heralded with executions. One thing seems certain: in Tudor England, no one is safe. Cromwell is remarkable because of his willingness to look ahead in the face of this helplessness, his endurance, “stuck like a limpet to the future.”

The truth of it is not so different today. Death is still the constant, or to put it less morbidly, the fact of our impermanence in the world. Like Thomas Cromwell, Henry the XVIII or Anne Boleyn, we spend our lives plotting and scheming for more: love, power, creation of a bloodline or creation of a book. Yet in the end history teaches that there will always be an afterwards. Whatever we gain is not forever. But, Mantel gently suggests, perhaps we misunderstand the “nature of endings.” Just as the falcons named for his departed daughters soar in the sky, in these pages Cromwell can again open his wings and fly. We, the reader, feel the exhilaration as though we are standing there with him in that summer field.

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