Book Review: 2012 Long Listed: Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (Review #3)

Bring_Up_The_BodiesRating: 4.5
Bring Up the Bodies
A Novel by Hilary Mantel
2012 / 407 Pages

The Setup: The sequel to Hilary Mantel’s 2009 Man Booker Prize winner and New York Times bestseller, Wolf Hall delves into the heart of Tudor history with the downfall of Anne Boleyn

Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice.

At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne’s head? (From the hardcover edition)

This review was simultaneously published on Opinionless on 09/05/2012

Off with her head!!!!

Slow down bloodlusty! To get there you’ll have to sit through 400 pages which chronicle the events leading up to the eventual deed that you’re hungrily anticipating. In fact, if you read Wolf Hall, the first book in Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy, you might be just a tad bit annoyed by the first seventy pages or so of this second entry, especially if you read the two back to back. There’s a fair amount of recapping and flashbacking about who Cromwell is, how he has risen through the ranks, what happened to his wife and children, and of course the most significant back story involving Cardinal Wosely. In the novel’s defense however, it does pick up the story right where the events detailed in Wolf Hall end.

So can one read Bring up the Bodies if they haven’t read Wolf Hall first? That seems to the biggest question that repeatedly gets raised when it comes to discussing this Booker long-listed title. The answer is yes, you most certainly can read Bring up the Bodies as a stand-alone novel. The better question is should you? The answer to that question is a resounding no.

Even though you’ll have to sit through some repetitive information at the front end of Bring up the Bodies, reading Wolf Hall first will help set the stage clearly for the events that will transpire and help to paint a better picture of just how unforgiving and unrelenting Thomas Cromwell can be, for while the first book is primarily about the split between Henry and Katherine, it’s also about Cardinal Wosely and Cromwell’s deep affinity for him. If you don’t have the building blocks of their relationship in place then it will be hard to relate to Cromwell’s motivations and the calculated series of actions he undertakes.

What surprised me most about Bring up the Bodies certainly wasn’t that Queen Anne lost her head in the end, but rather how ridiculously religious and sexually repressed people living in seventeenth century England really were. Having read this book I never want to get anywhere near a bible ever again. Religion was the root cause of way too many problems back then and sadly that’s true even in today’s society. Though if we all abandoned religion I’m sure we’d have little trouble finding another topic that we’d deem worthy of killing each other over or in the name of.

Still, religion aside, and even though you know exactly what will happen by the novel’s conclusion, Mantel does a perfect job with pacing as she inches ever closer to the sad event, and even if it isn’t all that shocking, when one stops to think about it, it all does seem rather crazy. Henry doesn’t want Katherine anymore so, as chronicled in Wolf Hall, he goes through a lengthy battle to have their marriage annulled, in the process severing all ties with the Vatican and naming himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Then after all that wooing, when he finally has Anne, he tires of her as well and actually goes the extreme of allowing the Queen of England to be beheaded so that he can marry his third wife Jane Seymour shortly thereafter. If Cromwell’s such a bad guy for executing on the king’s wishes, then what does that make Henry?

And for all his self-justification Cromwell is a “bad” guy, make no mistake about that, but this fact only serves to further illustrate what a fantastic job Mantel has done at building such a complex, multifaceted, sympathetic character. It’s tough not to root for Cromwell, even when you know the end result of his actions will most certainly spell death for many a person.

Bring up the Bodies is a near perfect historical novel. In fact it’s only flaw may be that the third and final book in the series, The Mirror & the Light, doesn’t exist yet, so when you finish Bodies and you’re clamoring for more there’s nowhere you can turn to get your Cromwell fix.

Well sure, in fairness there are plenty of other places you can turn to, but none of them will be quite as deliciously satisfying as Mantel’s take on the events. You can count on that.



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