Thursday, December 13, 2012

Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

When death is a foregone conclusion, when one is merely counting the meals, minutes, and breaths before dying, what does it mean to be alive? We know from the start of Bring Up the Bodies that Anne Boleyn is destined to die, and soon. But rather than dulling our interest this knowledge brings a macabre frisson to Mantel's story. Anne flirts, plots, rages, and dines in innocence, and we are left to bite our nails and watch her agonizing decline. King Henry's honor necessitates that she bring a number of gentlemen down with her and these, the bodies of the title, are also dead long before the headsman brings down the axe.

The novel's hero, or anti-hero perhaps, is the often-reviled Thomas Cromwell. Even casual students of Tudor history know that Cromwell himself will, eventually, suffer the King's justice. So he too is a walking corpse, even though his death is still years away. He has begun to fear his enemies but still, he lives and thrives. The reader's foreknowledge is difficult to bear when we find ourselves rooting for Cromwell while knowing his immutable end. But Mantel is reminding us that we are all, ultimately, sentenced to death. Anne's and Thomas's tragedies are our own.

Mantel brings Cromwell into focus with deft skill and heart. He is a bold, ambitious man who dares to bring down queens, but he loves his son and his friends, and offers mercy where he can. As in Wolf Hall, Mantel pulls the narrative focus in tight, getting as close to Cromwell as third person narration can, but in this second book in her trilogy she gives the reader a little more help with comprehending her style. We're grateful, and the book reads like the prize-winner it is. The plot gathers speed and tension as Cromwell uncovers suspicions and then evidence, however specious, of Anne's treason. Meanwhile the reader, just like Henry's bewildered courtiers, becomes caught up in the drama, beauty, and horror of this famous, yet uniquely told, story.

[Full disclosure: I am an unabashed Hilary Mantel fan. But you should be too. :)]

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Princess Nijma

Princess Nijma