Book Review: Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

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THE Tudors have been doing the rounds for a while now, from feature-length film to Philippa Gregory, writes Claire Houguez. Hilary Mantel’s challenge when approaching the story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall was to ‘take something people think they know about and show them a whole new side’.

This she does by telling us the story through the eyes of Henry VIII’s right-hand man, Thomas Cromwell (the monastery-burning one).

Mantel is a writer with the ability to see unflinchingly into the very heart of things, and report back our base desires and motivations: sex, money, greed, how others see us.

This is the quality that makes her historical fiction feel so contemporary. Her recent ‘slating’ of Kate Middleton was breathtakingly beautiful and, as he waded into the row, even David Cameron had to concede admiration for her writing abilities.

Mantel’s portrayal of Henry VIII’s court is in sharp focus.

Her sensuous, controlled prose glides loftily over the unnecessary exposition historical novels often fall into; leaving much unsaid, mirroring
the language of the court, where “a coded glance is enough, a nod and a wink”.

Publisher 4th Estate describes Bring Up the Bodies as a ‘speaking picture’, an attempt perhaps to divert our insatiable appetite for period drama. A cast list is provided; the novel’s prose is dialogue-based. Bring Up the Bodies is enjoyable for its behind-the-scenes feeling and the pleasure of riding alongside such a powerful figure as Cromwell.

It is the complexity of Cromwell that makes this novel so engaging. Painted by biographers as cruel and corrupt, Mantel’s revisionist minister takes waifs and strays into his home and is touched by the small kindnesses of strangers.

His affable tone makes him a pleasant companion and, against the court’s immorality and hysteria, he seems an enlightened, modern man. Only occasional, chillingly casual, references to the “necessary art” of hanging groups of people, or arranging accidents, slip through.

In interviews, Mantel is quick to explain any bias with “once you stand in Cromwell’s shoes, all the viewpoints change and everything comes up differently”.

Which remains the point of a good novel in an age of silver and small screens – reading offers a way directly into another person’s skin and the space to wonder whether you really would have behaved all that differently, and whether much has changed in the power structures of society.

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