Eagerly awaited, this sequel to 2009’s Wolf Hall starts with a bang. Not literally, but it has one of the very best first pages I have ever come across:
His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze. Grace Cromwell hovers in thin air. She is silent when she takes her prey, silent as she glides to his fist. But the sounds she makes then, the rustle of feathers and the creak, the sigh and riffle of pinion, the small cluck-cluck from her throat, these are sounds of recognition, intimate, daughterly, almost disapproving. Her breat is gore-streaked and flesh clings to her claws. Later, Henry will say, ‘Your girls flew well today.’ The hawk Anne Cromwell bounces on the glove of Rafe Sadler, who rides by the king in easy conversation. They are tired; the sun is declining, and they ride back to Wolf Hall with the reins slack on the necks of their mounts. Tomorrow his wife and two sisters will go out. These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay, are now transmigrated. Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer to no one. Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe, a universe filled with their dinner.
Thomas Cromwell, whose rise to power in Henry VIII’s court was described in Wolf Hall, is now an authority, the right hand of the king. Having instrumented the king’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, he is now dealing with the aftermath: England is shunned by most of Europe, the people don’t accept Anne as their queen, and Katherine, the first wife, refuses to die. And now the king is getting tired of Anne, who won’t deliver on her promise to bear him a son and heir. He has settled on a third wife: innocent, quiet Jane Seymour, and relies on Cromwell to get rid of Anne Boleyn. Cromwell, unshakeable, hard-working and with his mind fixed on business, has to search for new alliances from within the nobility and clergy, while keeping his olf friends close and his enemies even closer. All in a day’s work. But while his career seems solid, he is still reeling from the loss of his wife, daughters and friends.
Hilary Mantel manages to grip the reader within the first few pages. Where Cromwell’s hawks have simple lives, the daily grind at court is nothing like it. Every look, grimace or half sentence has a meaning and far-reaching consequences, all of which need to be assessed and dealt with by Cromwell. The king seems ever more dependent on him, while reminding him that he, and he alone, has the power to destroy lives with a simple nod of the head. While Bring Up The Bodies sweeps the reader along with its beautiful prose, and the modern feel of politics and human tragedy, there are constant reminders of the balance of power that is unique to the times. Henry is the overlord, and absolutely everything must be done to keep him safe and, most importantly, happy. Cromwell is accused by his enemies of wanting to ursurp the monarch, but while he is always trying to secure a comfortable life for himself and the many people he supports, he never loses sight of this goal. History shows us that he, too, must fall victim to the king’s whims, but we refuse to believe someone of his intelligence and humanity could ever fail. Mantel again portrays Cromwell as a modern man with a conscience and vision for a better England. Much of it must be artistic license, but it makes for a great novel.
There are too many interesting thoughts to list here. What struck me in particular was the suffering that women had to go through at the time. Babies are miscarried, children die, husbands rape and betray, witches burn, queens are beheaded for not bearing sons. In order for a historical novel to work, explicit pity and criticism are not allowed, which makes for harrowing reading. But a good novelist can still deal with those thoughts between the lines, and Hilary Mantel is a very good one.
I don’t know if a third novel is planned. Cromwell has yet to fall, and although I dread it, having become quite attached to the man, I would be the first to buy a copy of that book.