Bring Up the Bodies

Written by Hilary Mantel
Review by Ann Pedtke

It is 1535, and Henry VIII has become bored with Anne Boleyn. After upheaving the country and the Church in his efforts to divorce Queen Catherine and marry Anne, Henry has found a new object of desire: the plain but pure Jane Seymour. Jane is everything Anne is not – quiet, humble, virtuous, obedient. And so it falls to Thomas Cromwell – the man of low origins who has risen to become Henry’s chief minister – to procure the king’s desire, whatever the cost. After successfully arranging Henry’s divorce, Cromwell has gained wealth, influence, and the power to effect change. But all that he has rests on Henry – “How many men can say, as I must,” Cromwell remarks ruefully, “‘I am a man whose only friend is the King of England’?” Should Henry’s health fail, or should the king experience a change of temperament, all of Cromwell’s enemies will come crushing down upon him.

What is it that makes Hilary Mantel’s vision of the period so immensely compelling, despite the flood of Tudor novels on the market? Perhaps it is the immediacy of her present-tense narrative, the odd intimacy of her close third-person viewpoint, which sometimes slips into the first- or second-person as we read Cromwell’s thoughts. Perhaps it is the complexity of her characters – Henry the king, dangerous in his spontaneity yet sympathetic in his vulnerability; Cromwell himself, efficient but never heartless, eminently competent yet always struggling to keep his head above water. Perhaps it is the perfection of her set pieces, where each line spoken has significance, and the weighty implications of history are always hanging invisibly just overhead. Whatever the reasons, this book was every bit as masterful as Mantel’s earlier novel Wolf Hall. Bring Up the Bodies will hold me in its grip for many months to come.