John's Reviews > Bring Up the Bodies

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
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Sep 03, 2012

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bookshelves: historical-fiction
Read in August, 2012

Probably more like 3.5 stars. Mantel is a terrific and imaginative writer, but I found this sequel to Wolf Hall far less engaging that its predecessor. There are several reasons for this.

First, there's the shift in narrative and thematic focus. Wolf Hall was really about Cromwell and, through him, not only told a compelling story about his rise but used it as a lens through which to understand the birth of Modernity and the end of the Medieval world. By Bring Up the Bodies, however, Mantel has shot that bolt, and is left simply with the story of Cromwell maneuvering Anne out and Jane in. She tells the story well, but, frankly, who cares? What made Wolf Hall one of my favorite books of recent years was not that it was the Nth Tudor soap opera, but precisely that it avoided that pitfall and fried much, much bigger fish. No such luck here.

Second, while Thomas Cromwell remains a fascinating character in this book, his story here is much less focused, for reasons that are undoubtedly related to the above. Part of what made Wolf Hall so much fun was that Cromwell was its unambiguous hero, in spite of being traditionally treated as the villain of the morality play that surrounds Henry's quest for an heir. Seeing Cromwell as the hero was not only great fun, it was a way to see the Tudor world differently. In Bring Up the Bodies, however, Mantel can't seem to make up her mind as to how we're supposed to see Cromwell. Is he still the heroic avatar of a rising meritocratic bourgeoisie? Is he now a villain with no moral compass? Is he a victim of circumstance? He seems at turns each of these and more, and the instability of this portrait serves to gut the force of the narrative.

Finally, there's Mantel's prose style. I know a lot of readers were confused and irritated by her habit in Wolf Hall of never referring to Cromwell by name, but only ever as "he." And, in truth, it could get confusing and distracting. In Bring Up the Bodies, by contrast, she always refers to Cromwell by name, usually with the construction, "he, Cromwell, ..." Is it less confusing? Yes. But it smacks of commercial calculation, of the heavy hand of an editor who's willing to tinker with an author's style to please the public and goose sales. An author of Mantel's stature shouldn't have to acquiesce to that, particularly in her follow-up to the book that won her the Booker. It's disappointing.
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