'His children are falling from the sky,' is the arresting opening sentence of the second novel in Mantel's trilogy, exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell at the court of Henry VIII. Hawks at the king's hunting party in Wiltshire have been named after Cromwell's dead daughters, an odd memorial, but one that immediately reminds us of Cromwell's loss of those dear to him, and the cut-throat world in which he is now a key player. 'When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters; they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.'
As has been observed by others, Mantel is writing at the height of her powers and her language is full of delights. She doesn't burden us with her research, which effortlessly provides the structure to her novel - it is her sensory description which allows us to think we know what it is to inhabit the world of Henry Tudor. She conjures up - with even more skill perhaps - the workings of Cromwell's mind and the political machinations required to serve his king and to remove and execute a queen, according to the law of England. Cromwell has read Machiavelli and clearly thinks he could write better if he had the time - but there are always papers, always business to be attended to if the kingdom is to prosper.
Wolf Hall is an extraordinary novel, fully deserving of its prizes and the praise it gathered; Bring Up the Bodies is its near equal. If Wolf Hall was very much about the fall of Wolsey and the rise of Cromwell to high office, Bring Up the Bodies is about Cromwell holding on to power while Anne Boleyn loses it, and the cost of that to both. Mantel is writing a trilogy and this makes sense for the second act. Wolsey is still a character in this novel; his spirit guiding Cromwell, his loyalties and actions. Anne Boleyn loses her influence when she fails to provide Henry with a son and heir. Cromwell and Anne Boleyn supported each other in their rise to power but Cromwell notes the signs that the king's interest is moving and determines not to repeat Wolsey's mistake of not fulfilling the king's wishes quickly enough. The long-standing fascination with the Tudors is such that most of us know the plot - but Mantel triumphs in creating suspense and pathos for Anne and in keeping us strongly aligned with Cromwell's point of view, even as he schemes and orchestrates the evidence against her.
About halfway though the novel there is an pivotal scene where Henry is believed dead after a jousting accident. Mantel describes Cromwell's thought processes as the court panics and the country is on the brink of chaos. One moment he is caught up in emotion as he gazes at the king, 'Henry is waxen, and he sees the shocking tenderness of human flesh evicted from steel. He is lying on his back, all his magnificent height stretched out on a piece of ocean-blue cloth. His limbs are straight. He looks uninjured. He touches his face. It is still warm. Fate has not spoiled him or mangled. He is intact, a present for the gods. They are taking him back as he was sent.' The next moment he is thinking how he will pre-empt a civil war. It is a tour de force which both informs us of Cromwell's character, allowing us to make sense of his later actions, and gives us some insight into the fragility of the peace the Tudor reign has brought.
Henry's fickleness is clear throughout this novel, the renaissance prince is shown to be increasingly narcissistic and Cromwell has to draw on all his powers to manage him. It was part of Hilary Mantel's genius to tell this story from Cromwell's viewpoint. He is a man who has gained power through merit and hard work rather than by birth and privilege - and that appeals to our age and sensibilities. He is powerful and yet he knows that his power is vested in the king and in the value he brings him. Later in the novel Henry convulses with rage and says 'I really believe, Cromwell, that you think you are king, and I am the blacksmith's boy.' Cromwell is able to avert Henry's rage - whilst thinking that Henry would not have survived the smithy and the need for a cool head around fire and molten metal - but he knows that he will only survive if he gives the king money and the possibility of peace and an heir and so he goes to work.
Mantel has a mischievous way of inserting lines into her narrative that seem to come from Elizabethan plays not yet written - just one more enjoyable part of this rich and exciting novel.
If you read nothing else this summer - read this