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5.0 out of 5 stars Bring Up the Bodies, 9 Oct. 2013
This review is from: Bring Up the Bodies (Paperback)
Considering its predecessor was called Wolf Hall (the family home of the Seymours), it is not until the start of this sequel that we are actually taken there. Picking up a couple of months after the climax of the first book, which chronicled the rise of both Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell, we now come to Anne's downfall, whilst Cromwell appears like a man riding the crest of a wave, the surfboard bucking beneath his feet, one misstep threatening to tumble him into the jaws of the waiting sharks. He's made a lot of enemies, Cromwell, in his climb to become Henry's chief minister and advisor. Anne, meanwhile, three years as queen, has failed to provide a son and heir to the throne and - as rumours begin to circulate of the King's deficiencies in the bedroom being to blame, and of Anne's infidelities - suddenly Henry's eyes come to rest on young Jane Seymour (who, at this stage, I am assuming was fresh from her role in Live and Let Die, and was far too young to have considered Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman). Well, the writing is on the wall, isn't it? And, of course, it falls to Cromwell once again to facilitate the King's desires, knowing well enough the treacherous waters into which they will take him.

I suppose, in the wrong hands, telling a story to which everyone knows the outcome could be something of a poisoned chalice, a turgid drudge to a predictable conclusion. In the right hands, though, knowing what the outcome will be can lead to heightened tension: you know what's going to happen but you are so involved that you can only look on, helpless, as the characters fulfil their roles in the tragedy. Mantel's are most definitely the right hands. Perhaps her cleverest, neatest and best trick is to relate the events in the present tense. In doing so, she got me right inside Cromwell's head, seeing this vivid, dangerous world through his eyes. Much as he seems to be riding that wave, I felt as if I was riding his thoughts, watching him cajole and manipulate and fight for every inch of ground he could gain.

I know some people struggled with Wolf Hall but, for me, Mantel's prose is immaculate. It demands concentration, for sure (a slight distraction can lead to having to re-read a paragraph or page to grab back the thrust of a thought or scene), but it carried me from conversation to memory, flitting with Cromwell's thoughts to another half-formed memory, but always brought me back to the crux of the matter, the point of the scene. It is also riddled with caustic wit and profound observation. I frequently laughed out loud as I read: Cromwell is the master of the put-down, even if he internalises it. One such moment that stuck in my mind occurred early on, when Cromwell is visited by an enemy, the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen Gardiner:

----

'In practice, Stephen, upwards, downwards -- it hardly matters. "Where the word of a king is, there is power, and who may say to him, what doest thou?"'

'Henry is not a tyrant,' Gardiner says stiffly. 'I rebut any notion that his regime is not lawfully grounded. If I were king, I would wish my authority to be legitimate wholly, to be respected universally and, if questioned, stoutly defended. Would not you?'

'If I were king . . . '

He was going to say, if I were king I'd defenestrate you. Gardiner says, 'Why are you looking out of the window?'

----

Mantel's style is not the most descriptive - you'll rarely find detailed descriptions of rooms, buildings, attire etc - and yet the time and place seems to come alive through her words. The characterisation is pin-sharp, if seen through a Cromwell-tinted lens. Everything is seen through his eyes and, whether or not he agrees with him, he will do what he has to do to meet the needs of his King. You fear for him at the same time as standing agog at the audacity of the actions he takes.

Bring Up the Bodies is a triumph from the first page to the last, in my opinion. For me to read a book that contains literally not one piece of action, and yet to come away thinking that the pacing was phenomenal, never dragging for an instant, shows to me just how good a writer she is. It is completely absorbing, immersive, exciting and scary.

It is far and away the best book I've read so far this year.
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