Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Author: Hilary Mantel
Series: Wolf Hall #2
Genre: Historical fiction
Publisher: Henry Holt & Co., 2012
Read for: Sheer unadulterated delight
In Wolf Hall, Thomas Cromwell helped pave the way for Anne Boleyn's rise to power. However, in just a few short months of marriage, Henry VIII has grown disillusioned with the bride for whom he spent seven years fighting. Now his sights are set on the soft-spoken, plain Jane Seymour -- the antithesis of Anne Boleyn -- and the responsibility has fallen to Cromwell to once again fulfill the king's wishes. This change of favor means that Cromwell must ally himself with those who were once his enemies, and he can't help but note that it isn't only womanly favor with the king that is changing.
While immensely different from the first book of the series, Wolf Hall, in which Cromwell builds his own power and fortune with that of Anne Boleyn, Bring Up the Bodies brought me just as much delight as the first installment, albeit in a grittier, more action-packed way. Wolf Hall was at times dense and meandering, filling pages with poignant personal details about Cromwell's life and family. In Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell's family is gone, present only in the hawks he has named after his dead daughters and wife. There is no mention of a small dog named Bella, no romantic longings after his dead wife's sister. Instead, Cromwell's life is the delicate dance of politics that brought him to power and that now threatens to come crashing down. Cromwell is often villainized. In Wolf Hall, I couldn't really see why -- I saw the family man, self-made man aspects of him. However, in Bring Up the Bodies, Cromwell becomes more ruthless, more hungry for power. He finds himself not only fulfilling the king's errands, but also indulging his own appetite for revenge. He finds himself relating to his brutal, drunken father, a man who almost killed him multiple times before Thomas left home as a young man. While I liked the rising Cromwell much better than Cromwell in power, the transformation is fascinating.
I also noticed a change in my attitude toward the writing. In reading Wolf Hall, reading was tedious. Mantel's style is distinct and at times difficult. The story is told in the third person limited, and whenever Cromwell is referred to it is as "he," which sometimes lead me to think someone else entirely was speaking. I'm not sure if I became more used to the style or if Hilary Mantel heard the complaints of confusion with Wolf Hall, but generally when Cromwell is referred to as "he," it is followed by a semicolon and the clause "he, Cromwell." This made the reading much smoother for me, and I was more able to enjoy Mantel's sharp, at times bizarre imagery (for example, starting the story out with Cromwell's falcons swooping down on him. They are named after his dead wife and daughters, and it takes a moment to understand the bizarre image, but once it becomes clear it is absolutely unforgettable). While Wolf Hall was certainly rewarding despite the difficulty, Bring Up the Bodies was sheer literary pleasure -- I felt as if I was eating a feast with every beautifully formed phrase.
Plot-wise, there is much more action in Bring Up the Bodies than in Wolf Hall. While this made the reading faster, I actually would have liked more introspection and pausing in Bring up the Bodies. At times I felt I was in a race, trying to keep up with all that happened. While Cromwell's character is being built up in Wolf Hall, I missed some of the character development in Bring Up the Bodies. I felt as if I was expected to know them now, but they all were undergoing drastic changes and I would have liked more insight into the characters.
Overall, Bring up the Bodies is a masterpiece, just like its predecessor. I am hungry for the third volume of this trilogy. While Bring up the Bodies had certain aspects that I didn't enjoy as much as Wolf Hall, it also fixed many of the flaws that bothered me in Wolf Hall. Neither book is perfect, but they are both immensely rich and satisfying.
Warnings: Language, discussion of bedroom activities of the king and queen