Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, what a delicious book! The second book of the Cromwell Chronicles (I don’t think that is what they are called but it rolls off so nicely that it has become what I call them) that began with Wolf Hall.
The book picks up pretty much where the first leaves off and ends when Anne Boleyn loses her head (why do we say she lost her head as if a head is something one can misplace?). What is really interesting about this book is how Mantel manages to maintain suspense and tension even though we all know how it will end. It is precisely because we know Anne’s fate that the book is so tense. We know what she does not, we can see how all of her attempts to keep Henry go wrong and no amount of yelling at the book will change history. I have to give Anne so much credit. She must have known things were going bad as soon as Henry started mooning over Jane Seymour, but she fought as hard as she could as well as she could until the very end.
Problem is, she was fighting against Cromwell at the height of his power. No one has a chance against Cromwell. After Wolf Hall I felt a certain amount of sympathy for Cromwell. He seemed like just a regular guy, a nice guy, trying to make a living at a precarious job. He’s just doing what he is supposed to, make Henry happy and keep England functioning. Yes, sometimes what he had to do was morally questionable, but I always felt like he regretted those moments, that it didn’t come from a personal moral failing, only a desire to please the king. But such behavior is a tricky thing and in Bring Up the Bodies Cromwell slips from “closing his eyes and thinking of England” to actually committing moral atrocities of his own.
Anne’s downfall was completely orchestrated by Cromwell. In the beginning he made a half-hearted attempt to save Anne’s life but he didn’t push that option very hard. Instead he gets her and three of his enemies at court accused of treason and executed.
Cromwell is certainly not a stupid man. Even while he is bringing down Anne he is fully aware that things can, and probably will, turn against him at any time. He is at the height of his power now, but Cardinal Wolsey, his mentor, was also at the height of his power when he was brought low. So Cromwell works hard throughout this book to acquire lands and money and put them in the name of his son, his nephew, and other people in his household against the day that he is made to face the executioner.
The book continues in the style of Wolf Hall with Cromwell remaining “he.” But, I noticed right off that Mantel makes it a point rather frequently to distinguish who “he” is. She clearly was affected by the river of complaints from readers about how confusing Wolf Hall was. Thing is though, I liked her style in Wolf Hall. I liked being forced to pay attention and sometimes feeling off balance. I think it was Litlove in her review of the book who commented she felt like the style brought her closer to feeling how Cromwell must have felt, how he needed to pay attention always or risk losing all. It is a style that leaves a reader uneasy and not always certain. Brilliant, I think. But in Bring Up the Bodies it is watered down. Because Mantel would say, “he, Cromwell,” I felt as though the style lost some of its edge.
Now I suppose one could argue that the change in style was suited to the book. Cromwell is comfortable in is position, perhaps he is more relaxed. After all, the boys in his household are grown up and he can send them out to spy for him as well as rely on them for reports of court gossip and goings on without having to be there himself. Even so, I can’t help but feel a little like Mantel caved in just a bit. An excellent book nonetheless. I can’t wait for the final one to see if the style changes at all as Cromwell ends by losing his own head.