I was introduced to Hilary Mantel by accident, when I moved to London in 2010. I had slowly started to build myself a small library in my new home, and often raided the used bookshops in Soho in the evenings, picking anything and everything I felt I could fall in love with. I enjoyed the idea of filling a brand new shelf with old books, it seemed to give my life a sense of continuity, though really I knew deep down that nothing would ever be the same for me. But it sort of worked, this home away from home arrangement.
One day though, I was walking through Westfield in search of something not worth remembering apparently, and gave in in front of a WH Smith bookstore. It was there I found Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. It had just been awarded the Man Booker Prize, it was sporting the Tudor rose on the covers and it just seemed like an appropriate London read. So it became the first new book on my new shelves.
It really was an unlikely purchase for me, as usually I’m reluctant to read yet another glittery piece of historical fiction, especially when the story is that of Henry VIII, which myself and everybody I know pretty much know by heart. But then, Hilary Mantel turned out to have a way of making fiction feel more like historical analysis, with no compromises whatsoever when it comes to her harmonious writing style. It feels like a unique style of historical literature, and it engulfs you. In fact, I remember Wolf Hall was the book I was reading and had with me in my backpack as I was visiting the Tower of London for the first time, and the story made everything feel more real and at the same time, almost magical.
When Bring Up The Bodies, the second book in Mantel’s Cromwell series was nominated for (and eventually won) another Man Booker Prize last year, I ordered it online straight away. It took it several months to make its way to the top of my To Be Read pile, but once it was there and I started it, I read it hungrily, in long, intensive sessions, and finished it two days later. If Wolf Hall follows Henry VIII as he falls in love with and eventually marries Anne Boleyn, Bring Up The Bodies tells the story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall. And all is seen through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s right hand man, who has risen from common origins to great power and riches.
As I mentioned above, I knew the story. I had read or heard various versions of it, some aspects based on historical evidence, most on speculation. I was not expecting a miraculous turn of events. But Mantel’s story engrossed me, and I find myself going back to it even a week or two after I’ve read it, simply because it’s the type of story you never really let go of. Thomas Cromwell is an outstanding character. He is not portrayed as a villain or hero, but as the King’s Secretary – a man with a difficult job he happens to be very good at. The line between good and evil is blurred, the only driving force being the King’s will. His thoughts and plans are revealed to us as they reveal themselves to Cromwell, but some remain secret even to him, and one can only imagine what goes on in the King’s mind at a time of such turmoil.
I don’t know if there’s anything I didn’t like about Bring Up The Bodies. I loved the writing, and the characters, and the unravelling of the English Court machinations. Perhaps it could have been longer. I really want to know what happens to the new Queen. Of course I already know what happens, but I want Hilary Mantel to tell me the story. I really can’t wait for the third book, I don’t remember when I’ve looked forward to a sequel as much. It’s just been such a great read, and I’ve got my fingers crossed for a third Booker Prize!
|Hilary Mantel, Bring Up The Bodies|