Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
I loved Wolf Hall, so I was looking forward to this book, which earned Mantel her second Booker Prize. The timeline of this book is more compressed than in Wolf Hall. This book is focused mainly on the downfall of Anne Boleyn, while the previous novel spanned several years in retelling the demise of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More, as well as the ascendance of Anne. As this novel ends, Anne is gone, the Henry is marrying Jane Seymour, and Cromwell seems to have lost many of his own personal allies in the fight to rid the king of his second wife. A third novel is planned, in which Cromwell’s own downfall will be told. I can’t wait. It’s sure to be a Shakespearean-scale tragedy.
The novel is often wickedly funny, with a lot of gallows humor. Its forceful language is again the main attraction, and it fits so well with the ruthless characters. Here’s a great passage, one that sums up Mantel’s Cromwell about as concisely as possible:
Rafe asks him, could the king’s freedom be obtained, sir, with more economy of means? Less bloodshed?
Look, he says: once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room, and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand.
Historical novels like this, which set out to tell old stories in a new way, often have to introduce a twist of interpretation to freshen things up. Usually the things historical figures did are a matter of record, but we can always speculate about why they did them. In this retelling, the five men who are executed for treason for sleeping with the queen are chosen by Cromwell as an act of vengeance for the Cardinal. These are the men who are depicted in Wolf Hall acting in a play as devils dragging the Cardinal off to hell. The idea of having several people executed on trumped-up charges for an old grudge based on a silly play is pretty sick, but in the context of the novel and the character, it makes decent sense. It’s an audacious display of Cromwell’s power and corruption, as well as the deep loyalty and strange sense of justice that make him such an interesting character in Mantel’s books. As far as history goes, it seems unlikely, but in a novel it’s brilliant entertainment.