If Wolf Hall was a wonderful historical novel, Bring Up the Bodies is masterly. In this second of a trilogy, Hilary Mantel continues the story of Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies is more focused than the last book, because it deals with a much shorter time period and defined subject–the downfall of Anne Boleyn.
The writing is elegant and impeccable. I have read a few comments that Wolf Hall was sometimes difficult to follow because the readers could not always tell who was meant by “him” or “he.” Mantel has written both books using a strict third person limited point of view, from that of Cromwell, and people don’t think of themselves by their first names. Hence, the difficulty, which I did not notice as a problem in Bring Up the Bodies. This technique is very difficult to employ successfully–we are much more used to a third person that changes from character to character or even to third person omniscient. But Mantel uses it effortlessly to create a memorable character in Cromwell–kind but implacable, one who fosters the growth of others but does not forget the crimes and indignities committed against Cardinal Wolsey, whom he loved as as a father.
Henry VIII has already decided he wants to rid himself of Anne Boleyn and marry Jane Seymour, but Anne has one more chance. She is carrying a child, and if it is born alive and is a boy, she is safe. Henry must have an heir, and he has decided that if he hasn’t been given one, God must have found some fault with his marriage to Anne just as there was one for his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Thomas Cromwell must find him some way out of his difficulties.
Of course, Cromwell helped Anne to her position in the first place, but the Boleyns have made many enemies in their enjoyment of power, and they have treated him with disdain. More importantly, Anne Boleyn destroyed the Cardinal, and her brother mocked him in his downfall.
From the moment you begin reading, you find yourself plunged into the Tudor world of shifting politics and intrigue. Of course, we know what happens to Anne Boleyn, yet the novel maintains its suspense. The Boleyn and Howard families are going to suffer a huge defeat, but they will go down fighting.