Still pursuing the reading of the Man Booker longlist, I’ve just finished Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies. Of course, there’s a precedent here: this novel is a sequel to Wolf Hall, which won the prize in 2009 (has a book and its sequel ever both won the Booker before? I can’t think of an example). Wolf Hall is also in the process of being televised, which has excited fans. There is a particular storytelling skill in basing your narrative on well-known historical events: after all, it’s not as though we don’t know where it will end. Like Wolf Hall, this novel narrates the events through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, though not in first-person, and provides a study in politics: Cromwell features as a master-politician, able to understand the needs of those above and below him, and to act accordingly, even when his own wishes are contrary to this. Yet Cromwell’s personality is not subdued in this novel: he comes across as a remarkable man, shaped by the events of his life and of the turbulent times in which he lived. And throughout Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, we see how Cromwell has developed his political skills, and what has shaped him as a man; in this book, we also see the same shaping come to bear on Cromwell’s son, Gregory. We also see how women may play the politics game in the period – and how dangerous it can be for them and those around them.
The story is familiar, of course: Bring up the Bodies relates the fall of Anne Boleyn, building up to a crescendo covering the period of ‘investigation’ when Anne’s supposed lovers are questioned and tried, followed by Anne herself. Cromwell both supervises the proceedings and seems to look on, often with sadness, but playing his hand cautiously, aware of the fickle times in which he lives. The title of the novel refers to the bringing of prisoners from the Tower to their trial, with the uncomfortable connotation that of course they will soon be ‘bodies’ because the outcome, at the wish of King Henry, is a foregone conclusion. But the book is shadowed by recollections of the past dead: Wolsey, More, Cromwell’s family, and those ‘bodies’ recur throughout as Cromwell recollects them. As historical fiction, it is occasionally speculative, but clearly meticulously researched, and the plot races on. I believe there may be a third book one day, and personally I can’t wait for it (especially given what happens next in Cromwell’s life).
Mantel’s writing is remarkable, as readers of her previous novels will know. Her characters are nuanced, believable and sympathetic even in the most difficult of circumstances: she has the unusual skill of not judging her characters: none are wholly good, and none wholly evil. Henry’s behaviour is explained, and his religious views are also discussed with perspicacity; Anne’s behaviour is neither condoned nor condemned, and the fates of the characters remain interesting even though we may know the facts. Particularly, we see inside Cromwell’s head, and even as he does morally despicable things which lead to Anne’s death, we see that he is doing what he must to survive. It occurred to me that although I know what happens, what was keeping me reading (and feeling remarkable tension, especially towards the end) was that I wanted to see Mantel’s take on it, and that is the mark of an outstanding novelist. Her writing is both lyrical and precise; the turn of phrase which makes the politics of the Tudors come alive is also applied to the beauties of the English countryside and the timeless truths of the human mind. I have to say, I think this is a dead cert for the ManBooker shortlist.