Sometimes things sneak up on you. I didn’t realize Bring Up the Bodies, the second volume of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, was coming out until a few days before it was published in May. I’d included the first book, Wolf Hall, on this site’s list of my favorite novels, so I was excited when I realized I would soon have more time in the singular mind of Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, Master Secretary to Henry VIII.
I wasn’t disappointed. This isn’t a review, but I do want to offer a few of my impressions, some as a reader, some as a writer. The new book maintains the same intriguing and authoritative voice as Wolf Hall and, of course, draws on a history that has always been fascinating—Henry VIII and his wives; domestic and international politics in the Age of the Reformation. Just as Shakespeare turned to the English kings for his subject, bestowing some of their assumed greatness on himself, so does Mantel. I love her ambition and confidence in tackling such a large subject, and I love the way the story is so tightly lodged with Cromwell, major player but also keen observer (just off to the side). It’s the particular brilliance of that choice that gives these books their unique nature.
In my brief comment on Wolf Hall, I had one small complaint. In the early going, it’s sometimes not clear who the speaker is until you realize “he” is virtually always Cromwell. Mantel obviously didn’t want to break out of the enveloping Cromwell consciousness by tagging statements with Cromwell says. That issue is addressed in the new book in an interesting and convincing way. He says sometimes becomes he says: he, Cromwell. It works well, both identifying the speaker and underlining Cromwell’s importance.
With that clarity issue settled, I might have expected perfection from Bring up the Bodies. I didn’t—is there such a thing as a completely perfect book?—and that was lucky for I encountered two minor issues—or issues for me—that arose from the strictures of the history itself. About midway in the book, Mantel creates suspense about an impending jousting match, setting the reader up to expect a likely death. The death that’s announced is Henry’s, and of course it’s not persuasive as he still has many wives left in his future. While it is fascinating to see the reactions of the various members of the court factions when they think Henry is dead, I wondered if there was a better way to present that scene, perhaps looking at it retrospectively through Cromwell’s memory. It’s the sort of issue a writer mulls over and experiments with.
The end of Bring up the Bodies also raised a question for me. The reader, of course, is well aware that its closing action will be the death of Ann Boleyn and Cromwell’s starring turn in it since those are the actual events. And yet, as well written as the scenes with various victims are (and as absolutely inventive and nailed as Mantel’s transitions are), I found myself resisting the person Cromwell became, the man who’d been a wool trader who knew fabrics and showed them to us, the person who’d been a family man of humor and sensibility, the man of great control who’d proven himself an extraordinary reader of human nature. I suffered a little—more than I did with the Thomas More denouement in Wolf Hall, when Cromwell became a sixteenth century variant of a Michael Corleone, the nuance gone.
But that was all. Mantel is such an extraordinary writer, her unexpected use of language creating such amazingly textured lives. She evokes the period not through the awkwardness of archaic syntax but with an occasional obsolete or unfamiliar word or an unusual foreign word; she uses the sound and rhythm of language to create an interface of the physical world with the interior experience of it. The detail is wonderful, the power of a history built on moral flaws relentless.
What a gift to find such a writer and to read such a book. For a reader, there’s not even a hint of settling. Begin, if you will, with the falconing expedition of Henry and Cromwell and this wonderful first sentence: “His children are falling from the sky.”
Additional note: I absolutely identified with Mantel’s response in her Amazon interview about how she handles her variant of writer’s block. One of her solutions is to take a shower as words always descend on her when there’s no way to write them down. Another is to go to sleep for the night, expecting to find the ideas or words she needs in the morning (I’m a serious believer in letting the passive mind solve some of the writer’s problems). Her other comment is basically about fixing the prose when the ideas are there but the writing feels off. Mantel, who has a poet’s affinity for language, says she leaves her manuscript in that case and reads poetry for a while until she finds the rhythm she needs. To me, this is crucial. So much of writing is about establishing and maintaining voice, and so much of that is about the rhythm of language. Any great writer, and Mantel is one, masters this.