Bring Up The Bodies is Hilary Mantel’s second book in a trilogy detailing the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell. In spite of its daunting reputation I loved the first in the series, Wolf Hall, once I got the hang of a somewhat confusing narrative. Mantel has a way of writing that makes this history of King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell – which is widely known and discussed – come alive with strong tension and suspense despite knowing the outcome. Quite a feat. Summarizing these books is easy peasy. In Wolf Hall, Henry wants to marry Anne – Heaven and Earth are moved, England’s religion is irrevocably altered, and people die to make this happen. In Bring Up The Bodies, Henry wants to marry Jane Seymour – Heaven and Earth are moved, and people die (chiefly Anne Boleyn, her brother and a selection of Anne’s other courtiers) to make this happen.
Okay, so a little more detail. Henry and Anne have been married for a few years and the bloom is off the rose. They have had their first child, Elizabeth, and though Henry is clearly disappointed he’s willing to take that as a sign of Anne’s fertility. Surely they will have a boy soon…only they don’t. After several miscarriages Henry begins to look on Jane Seymour with greater and greater interest (she is placid and more biddable than Anne, who can be a shrew), and hints that surely something must be wrong with his marriage to Anne that they have not been blessed with a male heir. Henry speculates with Cromwell on possible ways to invalidate his marriage, and Cromwell, ever the master statesman and negotiator, sets about to make what Henry wishes a reality.
Once again Mantel excels at exemplifying the complications that make Cromwell’s job such a balancing act, and just how skilled he is at managing the affairs of country and king. Cromwell bears the brunt of disapproving for creating the means of Anne and Henry’s marriage, and he is not popular for it. He has the precarious position of attempting diplomacy and managing the affairs of three factions – those who are upset with Henry’s treatment of Katherine and the bastardized Mary, Anne and her kin, as well as Jane Seymour’s family – who is on the rise. His life clearly hangs in the balance if he makes a misstep. Allusions are made to the the deaths of both Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More, who are never far from the forefront of Cromwell’s thoughts. Everyone knows what happens when Henry is displeased. Still, I felt less aligned with him this time around. Something about the speed of the events, the callousness of making the accusations, and the way Cromwell interacted with the accused had me questioning Mantel’s version of events toward the end of this novel. I understood Cromwell’s position but I definitely liked him less – and I wanted to check up to see where Mantel was playing fast and loose with history because some of it just didn’t jive.
Mantel is as deft with her portrayals as she is in Wolf Hall. The characterizations are witty, and she communicates a vast amount of information about the state of the kingdom and its people as well as the players involved in Henry’s marital woes. As ever she manages to take a known outcome and still insert tension, entertainment and suspense. Bring up the Bodies succeeds in accessibility where Wolf Hall caused trepidation. A worthy sequel, but I wasn’t quite as enamored of it as I was its predecessor. Recommended.
Audiobook Thoughts: I have heard much ado about the narration skills of Simon Vance. It was part of the reason that I chose to listen to Bring Up The Bodies. I enjoyed the narration and the way he voiced his characters. Bring Up The Bodies has quite a bit of dialogue and it was easy to follow along knowing who was speaking at any given time. Henry was whiny (very appropriate, imho) and Cromwell sounded super dry and witty. Vance handily captured both the gravity of the narrative and the personalities of the characters. Listen!