The verdict of history came in long before Hilary Mantel's riveting Bring Up The Bodies finally landed on bookshelves in Thailand a few weeks ago.
Bring Up The Bodies Hilary Mantel 4th Estate trade paperback, 410pp 525 baht at Asia Books
The sequel to the sprawling, occasionally daunting, Henry VIII-era epic Wolf Hall has collected pretty much every literary award it was eligible for, including the Man Booker Prize and Costa Book of the Year Award. They are parts one and two in a planned trilogy about the life and times of Henry's manipulative and unforgiving minister Thomas Cromwell and they have earned Mantel fame and acclaim.
So, Bring Up The Bodies has been judged to be not only a good book, but a worthy and important one _ you know the type, they are often so tiresome and tedious to actually read. Think of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, the Booker of Bookers, we are told, which for all its moments of beauty and richness is a pompous and frustrating read where everyone expectorates instead of spitting.
Unlike so many of these apparently important books, Bring Up The Bodies is a delight; I read it twice, before even finishing the longer and more confusing Wolf Hall. Despite a daunting list of courtiers, dukes and diplomats, many of them related, Mantel charts with aplomb the year of courtly intrigue leading up to (spoiler alert) Anne Boleyn's head being sliced off.
A passing knowledge of Tudor history may be helpful, but Mantel provides all you need to know: Cromwell is Henry's right-hand man, a loyal servant who schemes ways to end the king's inconvenient marriages.
Where the first instalment spans 30 years in Cromwell's life, the second essentially pits him against Anne, "the queen that is now" who is being called a "goggle-eyed whore" by men in the street, and other enemies in the Boleyn family. Where the first was vast and expansive, the second is a taut and almost claustrophobic examination of politics and paranoia, gossip and revenge. And Bring Up The Bodies is a lot shorter, which helps add to the intimacy and brutality.
So much has been written and re-enacted from the time of Henry VIII. It's a story that keeps on giving. Here's a charismatic king who by turns becomes increasingly nasty, lopping off the heads of his enemies, and everyone seems to have slept with everyone else. It's great drama, and far enough in the past that we can conveniently forget they were real people and the events had dramatic implications for world history.
The genius of Mantel's saga is its focus on Cromwell, who has been somewhat neglected by historians, and imagined his thoughts, motivations and dialogue as he makes his mark on the world. This is fiction, after all, even if we know the ending. (The trilogy will end with The Mirror And The Light, set for publication in 2015. Spoiler alert: Cromwell's head ended up on a spike on London Bridge in 1540.)
The inevitable decapitation creeps up on you: nowhere does Henry say "off with her head". Instead we get hints, suggestions, and Cromwell reading his master's moods. Told in the present tense, the man in the middle has no way of knowing if his scheming will succeed, or whether his enemies will have him on the scaffold first.
Bring Up The Bodies is by no means perfect: Mantel's incessant use of "he" for Cromwell in Wolf Hall was a tad tedious, and here "he, Cromwell" is overused. By its nature the long cast of characters can be confusing, but following Cromwell throughout helps mitigate this.
Mantel has justifiably won praise for putting new life and an interesting twist on a nearly 500-year-old story. She has also managed to make state-sanctioned murder perversely enjoyable. Now we are just waiting to see how Mantel will execute the final instalment.
About the author
Writer: Michael Ruffles