Bring up the Bodies


I am on a roll right here. Two Man Booker prize-winning novels in a row. That usually never happens. Usually award-winning books are such powerful experiences, that I need to take a break to clean up my mind a bit.

But Bring up the Bodies hardly feels like a Booker prize winner. It’s fast-paced, taut, and has a very tense quality in it, which is very surprising for a historical novel.

And yes, the language is out of the mind beautiful. But Mantel is not an author in love with her writing. At no point does the wonderful writing overshadow the story.

And what a story it is!

Note: If you are not already familiar with the story of Henry VIII and his six wives, and are not comfortable with the politics and the people of the time, this book and this review is going to make no sense to you.

And now, on to the book itself.

Book Synopsis

Though he battled for seven years to marry her, Henry is disenchanted with Anne Boleyn. She has failed to give him a son and her sharp intelligence and audacious will alienate his old friends and the noble families of England. When the discarded Katherine dies in exile from the court, Anne stands starkly exposed, the focus of gossip and malice.

At a word from Henry, Thomas Cromwell is ready to bring her down. Over three terrifying weeks, Anne is ensnared in a web of conspiracy, while the demure Jane Seymour stands waiting her turn for the poisoned wedding ring. But Anne and her powerful family will not yield without a ferocious struggle. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies follows the dramatic trial of the queen and her suitors for adultery and treason. To defeat the Boleyns, Cromwell must ally with his natural enemies, the papist aristocracy. What price will he pay for Anne’s head?

~ Synopsis from goodreads

Why I read this book

This is the second book in Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy. I had read, and loved the first book – Wolf Hall, but the ending was not compelling enough for me to rush into the second book. In my opinion, Wolf Hall started really strong, but was quite slow towards the end.

Anyway, I postponed reading Bring up the Bodies for the longest time. After all, why bother? The story of the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn has been done to death by various authors, and frankly I am a bit tired of Henry VIII and his six wives.

But I decided to read it eventually because:

  1. It’s a Man Booker winner, and I need to read it as part of my Man Booker reading challenge.
  2. I had loved the writing in Wolf Hall, and thought I’d like this book just for the language alone.

My Review

So, I already told you I loved this book, and the reason I loved it so much is the wonderful writing. Mantel really knows how to get us into the heads of her characters and make us understand why they did what they did.

I have always regarded Cromwell as the villain of the piece. But as I read this I could get where he was coming from.

Queen Anne has proved to be a disappointing queen. She didn’t give birth to the promised Princes, and her very existence has alienated Spain and Rome – two major powers at the time.

And then, Henry gets infatuated with Jane – seemingly a more manageable girl, who will take instruction from Cromwell and the King. When Henry starts to ponder:

“What,” he now wonders, “if there is some flaw in my marriage to Anne, some impediment, something displeasing to Almighty God?”

Cromwell who has heard these words just three years before, and who is well aware what happened to his predecessor, Wolsey who failed in the King’s previous divorce, knows that he needs to act, and act fast.

There is an interesting throwaway sentence in the book that illuminates why Cromwell elected to prove infidelity and get a death sentence. He muses on a book he has recently read – The Prince by Machiavelli, and thinks how he doesn’t entirely agree with Machiavelli’s viewpoints.

But it does seem like he took some few crucial points, because the steps he takes to get rid of Anne is definitely Machiavellian in style.

So, yes, this book does give a fantastic insight into why Anne’s downfall was necessary.

However, we don’t really get a clear picture of Anne. From the little we get to see, Anne is pretty unlikeable – driven, vengeful, and bitter. But was she actually guilty of these charges? Did she have lovers, including her own brother? You wouldn’t know from reading this book.

In general, most historians agree that the charges against Anne were flimsy and manufactured.

However, Mantel herself never takes a stand on these charges. Because the story is told from Cromwell’s point of view, we don’t know what Anne did, and to Cromwell it doesn’t matter – it only matters what he can convict her of.

Once her guilt is understood, Cromwell needs to find the men to frame her with. He finds them in four courtiers, who mocked Wolsey in a court pantomime after his death.

Quickly, the four men – Mark Smeaton, Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston, and the Queen’s own brother, George are brought into the Tower and interrogated. The interrogation is a master-piece where Cromwell reminds each man of his sins and slights against Cromwell and Wolsey before he charges them with infidelity with Anne.

A trumped-up case, and charges later, it’s now time for the beheading. Anne’s beheading is poetic almost beautiful.

There is a groan, one single sound from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.

Aah, now you understand what I mean when I say this is so well-written, don’t you? Only a genius like Mantel could make that brutal blood-shedding sound so lovely.

And now, I am officially in love with Mantel’s writing, and till the next book in the trilogy comes out, I am looking to read other books from her. I don’t see too many reviews of Mantel’s other books, so I am not sure where to start. Have you read any of her other non-Cromwell books? Would you care to recommend one to me?

You can also buy a copy of this book from Amazon.

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  • The Bride

    “Aah, now you understand what I mean when I say this is
    so well-written, don’t you? Only a genius like Mantel could make that
    brutal blood-shedding sound so lovely.” Lol true. I have not just read but re-read these books, watched the TV series remake and forgot there’s supposed to be a third. Is it out?

    • Nishita

      @disqus_n8id8gueu6:disqus the third book is not yet out, and from what I googled just now, there does not seem to be a publish date yet :(.

      I’d forgotten about the TV series. I should check if it comes on TV here in India.

  • I’ve only read one other of Mantel’s books, Beyond Black, and it turned me into a puddle of weak-limbed and wretched despair. So, er, would not recommend. It wasn’t sad — it just made me feel exhausted and useless like there was no point to anything and also I shouldn’t have learned to read Tarot cards.

    • Nishita

      @readingtheend:disqus Oh dear! That sounds awful. What’s with the tarot cards though? Just for that I should look this book up on goodreads 😀

  • Helen

    I loved this too and am looking forward to the third book in the trilogy, whenever it eventually comes out! I haven’t read any of Hilary Mantel’s other books yet, but I’m curious about them. A Place of Greater Safety, her novel about the French Revolution, is supposed to be good but I’ve been put off by the length.

    • Nishita

      @disqus_PJt0yMC1c8:disqus I can’t wait for the third book Helen. And thanks for referring A Place of Greater Safety. It sounds good.

    • Karen

      I struggled with that one too and in fact gave up on it – maybe because i didnt know enough about the Revolution itself. but her two cromwell books are in a different league so well worth trying

      • Nishita

        @disqus_gmoXW9BOB2:disqus She does seem to expect the reader to already know all the facts before reading her books, doesn’t she? If I hadn’t already read about Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, I would have been at sea reading these Cromwell books.

        I should probably read up something easier on the French Revolution before tackling this one.

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