Where much historical fiction gets entangled in the simulation of historical authenticity, Mantel bypasses those knots of concoction, and proceeds as if authenticity were magic rather than a science … Thomas Cromwell (c. 1485-1540) is one of the most fascinating characters in contemporary fiction—brutal, worldly, reticent, practical, unsentimental but not without tenderness of a kind, Biblically literate but theologically uncommitted, freakishly self-confident but perilously low on friends … He emerges from these novels if not quite a hero, then at least someone whose torments have been chosen for comprehension, like the sinful protagonist of a Graham Greene novel. This is brave of Mantel, even bravely peculiar, given the reputation of the actual Thomas Cromwell, who acted as a brutal fixer for both Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII.
Mantel is a modern storyteller, making no attempt to imitate the language of the period. But she often writes poetically, evoking (or should we say creating?) the beauties and the sordidness, the tenderness and the cruelty of the Tudor world … Cromwell is entangled in complex webs of intrigue and religious strife, of personal dramas that have international repercussions. His master King Henry is a shifty character, lacking self-knowledge, constantly and casuistically looking for loopholes in the law, for ways in which he can justify to himself if to no one else the courses of action that he wishes to pursue in order to fulfil his sexual and dynastic desires...Though Cromwell is a master politician, keeping his head down when others are in danger of losing theirs, he is not without personal motives in what he does.
Bring Up the Bodies takes up exactly where Wolf Hall leaves off: its great magic is in making the worn-out story of Henry and his many wives seem fascinating and suspenseful again … Bring Up the Bodies is in many ways a study of power and influence, how to acquire it and how to use it, and makes you realize that serving at court under a willful monarch is not so very different from negotiating your way through the corporate maze, except that now your master can only sack you, not send you to the Tower … Bring Up the Bodies (the title refers to the four men executed for supposedly sleeping with Anne) isn’t nostalgic, exactly, but it’s astringent and purifying, stripping away the cobwebs and varnish of history, the antique formulations and brocaded sentimentality of costume-drama novels, so that the English past comes to seem like something vivid, strange and brand new.
Mantel condemns her readers to live in the mind (and witness the psychological acrobatics) of Henry VIII’s most notorious hit man. Seeing history through Cromwell’s eyes gives the reader privileged access to certain secrets, to the conflict behind his silence, behind his famously reticent and impassive mien. Like Robert Browning’s dramatic monologists and Joseph Conrad’s anti-heroes, we’re not meant to judge Cromwell, but to empathize with him … Mantel’s use of historical fiction is also a critique of it. Bring Up the Bodies gets at the idea that our faith in a country’s history — in a kingdom’s icons — are ultimately retrospective effects of national feeling. One’s idea of the nation, like one’s portrait of the past, is just a story, and likely punctured with gaps, scattered with half-truths, if not full-out lies.
[Wolf Hall] was a hard act to follow. But the follow-up is equally sublime … Yes, you can read it cold. Knowledge of Wolf Hall is not a prerequisite to appreciating what Bring Up the Bodies describes, because Ms. Mantel sets up her new book so gracefully … Ms. Mantel makes Cromwell a wholly unexpected figure: self-made, belligerent because he had no choice, obsessed by abstract power as much as the actual kind, and confident in his ability to control and fathom what others are thinking. He is wise enough to know that being Henry’s henchman, fixer and stand-in (he even ghostwrites a love letter as Henry courts Jane) is a mixed blessing. So as Bring Up the Bodies tightens its focus suspensefully — in ways that explain what that cryptic title means — Cromwell’s confidence is shaken.
Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s follow-up to her Man Booker Prize-winning 2009 novel, Wolf Hall, is a high-wire act, a feat of novelistic derring-do. Mantel makes bold not with form — by now meaningful experimentation in that area seems exhausted — but with the very material that brings most readers to novels in the first place: our imaginative identification with fictional characters and the experiences we feel we’re sharing with them … We are shown that Cromwell is ruthless — there’s passing mention of hangings in Ireland, among other things — but we also know that he is loyal. This is his saving virtue. His allegiance is to England and to Henry, who, like the late Cardinal, has recognized his worth and raised him up.
There will be plenty of fresh corpses by the time Hilary Mantel’s narrative completes its mordant course through the nine months required to send Anne Boleyn to the scaffold and clear the way for Henry’s new love, Jane Seymour … The reader’s problem, deliberately created by Mantel, is that we know Cromwell too intimately to hate him for his terrible deeds. We understand the stark imperative that drives him: Satisfy the king or be thrown to the aristocratic wolves. We feel his bleak acceptance of guilt that is no less onerous for being unavoidable. The past he has shared with us ‘lies about him like a burnt house’ … The pleasures of Bring Up the Bodies — and they are abundant, albeit severe — reside in Mantel’s artistic mastery. She animates history with a political and psychological acuity equal to Tolstoy’s in War and Peace.
[Bring Up the Bodies] is more than the equal of its predecessor when it comes to intensity and drama, its portrait of Cromwell ever more evocative and nuanced as he disposes of a queen, more elevated than a mere cardinal (Wolsey) and saint (Thomas More), whose downfalls were front and center in Wolf Hall ... Perhaps Mantel's most remarkable achievement is to enlist just enough of the reader's sympathy to empathize with Cromwell as they perch on his shoulder and at times even enter his mind — if not quite his soul — as he works his wiles on victims and those who can help him engineer their downfall. Of course it helps that in Anne Boleyn he has such an unsympathetic foil, for if she was unpleasant as the simpering wily upstart determined to climb up the ladder in Wolf Hall, she is still more so now that she is crowned and anointed.
At this point in the Cromwell story, the historical record starts to constrict—it becomes more stark, more like fate—which leaves Mantel with somewhat fewer opportunities for revision and reinvention. The novel’s pace is a slow creep of ghoulish inevitability. The rot seeps and spreads, and Cromwell gains in menace what he loses in sympathy. Death, and death foretold, is everywhere … Like many sequels, Bring Up the Bodies has its share of recap and slightly unwieldy exposition. Events that Mantel used to foreshadow doom in Wolf Hall erupt into present-tense horror … Cromwell has also become a bit more like the king he serves in Bring Up the Bodies—and despite its faults, the book is a brilliant example of how hubris can become contagious.
A welcome counterpoint to the slacker heroes who stagger through so many contemporary novels, Cromwell trains falcons, adopts orphans, drafts legal briefs, sweet-talks ambassadors, lends money at considerable interest, interrogates witnesses and speaks multiple languages, although he frequently keeps that a secret so he can eavesdrop on servants. He is as cunning and clever as Odysseus – how does a mortal writer inhabit such a man? – and, like Homer, Mantel gives him plenty of grief … A perfect character for the interior world of fiction, Cromwell as a courtier and conspiracy weaver can rarely say what he means, or even what he thinks. Every interaction thrums with subtext.
Much of the dialogue in Bodies has the feel of masterfully crafted depositions or a first-rate police procedural, as Cromwell gently questions Anne's ladies-in-waiting – before cranking the heat while interrogating Anne's suspected lovers. But even as Bodies narrows its focus on the hunted Anne and hurtles toward its conclusion, part of Mantel – and her marvelous, many-sided Cromwell – refuses to be reduced to another episode of Law & Order … This Cromwell, keeping his own counsel even as he does Henry's bidding, gives us magnificent soliloquies. On his dead wife and vulnerable son. His colorful past and his decaying body. On the end of feudalism and the decline of honor. On the modern England he hopes to birth – and his growing fear that the capricious Henry will turn on him before it can be born.
Mantel masterfully portrays the childish Henry, mercurial Anne and enigmatic Jane, but the soul of the Wolf Hall books is Cromwell. His titles include ‘Secretary to the King’ and ‘Master of the Rolls,’ but he's essentially a fixer and consigliere for the fickle Henry. Mantel's portrayal is complex, nuanced and wholly original. While Cromwell sometimes comes across as a Tudor-era Tony Soprano, Bring Up the Bodies shows a more unsure side, a middle-aged man coming to terms with his mortality, still mourning the loss of his wife and daughters. The portrait is as delicate and keen as any other in recent historical fiction.
Though this second book in a planned trilogy stands alone as a meticulously crafted novel, the first chapter is a seamless continuation of the final page of Wolf Hall; last seen galloping across summer fields, Cromwell returns watching hawks swoop in early autumn … The level of detail in both books is so excessive that with a charmless narrator a reader would feel lectured. But Cromwell is exceptionally entertaining. Along with his grief, professionalism, and toughness is his sense of humor, Mantel’s sense of humor. Everything in the book is very funny, never more so than when Cromwell’s mind is turning a polite formal meeting into something so much darker … Part of the story’s glory is surely its autobiographical nature, the notion that Mantel has here sublimated herself to Cromwell—the lowborn genius awash in grief rising above his contemporaries, astonished at the hypocrisy in society.
Mantel’s vivid grasp of history, whittled down to fine logistical details of who was where and when, conveys a sense of urgency and precision. Figures we know through flat biographical details live on Mantel’s page. Anne, though brittle in her queenship, is a longing mother: Her eyes follow Princess Elizabeth when court etiquette sweeps the child away. Henry is less the tyrannical ruler than a stymied husband and father, pressed by foreign and domestic powers on what he considers to be family matters. And Cromwell uses truth, rumor and scandal to achieve Henry’s ends, yet his private thoughts betray his doubts and misgivings as he executes his duty. Mantel’s Tudor court is less gilded than the bodice-busters of popular fiction. It is government, merciless and firm. Its human pawns react as best they can.
The historical facts are known: this is not about what happens, but about how. And armed with street smarts, vast experience and connections, a ferociously good memory, and a patient taste for revenge, Mantel’s Cromwell is a master of how … Mantel has taught us how to read her, and seeing Cromwell manipulate and outsmart the nobles who look down on him, while moving between his well-managed domestic arrangements and the murky world of accusations and counteraccusations is pure pleasure.
Mantel has a difficult challenge in keeping up our sympathy for Cromwell. She succeeds, mostly by portraying Cromwell as acutely aware that one misstep could land ‘him, Cromwell’ on the scaffold as well. That misstep will happen, but not in this book. The inventiveness of Mantel’s language is the chief draw here; the plot, as such, will engage only the most determined of Tudor enthusiasts.