Hilary Mantel set the standard high for herself with her 2009 Man Booker Prize winner Wolf Hall, so high in fact that no one could envy her the task of penning a follow-up. The historical realism and unique style of Wolf Hall brought fresh perspective to a story we’ve heard a thousand times before, not least in the historical fiction world: that of Henry VIII and his marital woes. Somehow, Mantel has managed to do it again with her second Tudor novel, Bring Up the Bodies, which sparkles with literary power and fascinating detail, bringing to life a world that had begun to feel stale through over-telling.
While Wolf Hall dealt with the rise of Cromwell in Henry’s court and the trial and execution of Thomas More, Bring Up the Bodies invokes an even bloodier chapter in British history; the downfall of Anne Boleyn, along with many of those around her. Although Cromwell is instrumental in all of these schemes and conspiracies, Mantel’s protagonist is no villain. This Cromwell is simply a man who works hard at his job; he is pragmatic and Machiavellian (a man he reads himself) but also human, not lacking in feeling or friendships. His back-story is provided in great detail, just as it was in Wolf Hall, and the reader feels a certain intimacy with this powerful figure, despite the harsh cruelty he carries out for his King. Whereas novels in this genre have tended to focus on the sexier side of the story, with each writer drawing their own conclusion as to what went on behind closed doors while Anne was Queen of England, Mantel doesn’t sensationalise the story, keeping the focus instead on Cromwell and his particular aims and needs, leaving the reader to imagine the rest for themselves.
Somehow, Mantel has managed to exceed expectations with Bring Up the Bodies, producing a novel that is exciting and sharp, perhaps even superior to the much-admired Wolf Hall. It offers an interpretation of an oft-told story that is both fresh and bold, and presents the author with an even higher bar to rise to for the final novel in the trilogy.