Henry VIII is onto wife number two, but what is a man to do when he gets bored of her? Chop her head off of course! This is the story of how Henry got rid of Anne Boleyn… Only it isn’t. Hilary Mantel is at pains to point out in the authors note that this book is about Thomas Cromwell, through whose eyes it is told, and not about either Henry or Anne. To that I say:
A few weeks ago I reviewed Wolf Hall which I didn’t realise at the time was the first in a trilogy about Henry, oops I mean Cromwell. Bring up the Bodies is the second book and the third will be published next year. Mantel won the Man Booker prize for both of these books and whilst I was surprised the first time round, this book had me hooked right the way through.
Thomas Cromwell is the King’s Master Secretary – something like an extremely powerful PA. Cromwell has been the maker and breaker of people in Henry’s court and also of Henry’s wife. Shrewd and calculating, Cromwell is a force to be reckoned with. He knows how to play the long game and how to get his own way. I liked Cromwell himself more in the first book. His unfettered ambition wasn’t so visible. His ruthless nature was not as harsh.
One of the difficulties with this book is that there are a lot of characters in it. Mantel didn’t really have much choice in this as it is historical fiction, but she did have a choice in how she referred to them. Take the Ambassador from Rome for example, who was referred to as:
- The imperial ambassador
- Chapuy (his surname)
- Eustache (his first name)
When you have a cast of 20 odd characters to remember, it doesn’t help to then treble that number by referring to them all in different ways!
I also read a review on Goodreads of Wolf Hall where the reviewer had pointed out Mantel’s insistence on awkwardly referring to Cromwell as “he” ‘He sat down, he Cromwell.’ Once I had noticed this, I couldn’t un-notice it. Why? I thought. Why would you do this?!
All this grumbling may give you the impression that I didn’t like this book. It is the triumph that is Bring up the Bodies, that despite these niggles, I couldn’t put the book down. I was so enthralled with the demise of poor old Anne Boleyn. And despite knowing her gruesome end I just had to keep reading to see how exactly she got there and how Mrs Henry VIII number three came into being.
If you’re interested in this period of history (or perhaps, even if you didn’t realise you were) this is a tale of secrets, ambitions, seductions and political maneuverings that will have you on tenterhooks. Mantel is a true genius and I am eagerly awaiting the third book in this drawn out trilogy which comes out next year. That one really will be about Cromwell and how he meets the same sticky Tudor end that so many of his friends and colleagues have met. It was a dangerous time to be in politics!
Next week I’ll be reviewing The Secret Life of Language by Simon Pulleyn. Come back on Monday to find out how French and Hindi are cousins!