Monday, June 22, 2020

Book Review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Oh Thomas Cromwell! Man, if I could just learn 1% of his ability to be so supremely useful, that's at the heart of his power. In the first book, for most of the time, he was following in Cardinal Wolsey's coattails, and then floundering a bit on his own, culminating in the death of Thomas More. In this one, he's fully come into his own power, and while initially he helps the Boleyns, when Henry VIII's eye turns to Jane Seymour, Cromwell helps that along. It's kind of funny that the Boleyns think he's on their side and then they're confused, hurt, and betrayed when he seems to switch to the side of the Seymours, But he's never on the side of either the Boleyns or the Seymours--he's on Henry's side. What Henry wants, Henry gets. That's how Cromwell keeps his vaunted power, despite so many predictions of his downfall. He does not align himself with any outside political groups. His loyalty--not for loyalty's sake but because it is what's best for himself and for England--is to the crown.

In this book Anne falls from her peak. She has a girl and then several lost pregnancies. Eventually the first queen, Katherine, dies. But that does not restore Anne to her former glory--instead it seems to hurry along Henry's desire to be done with Anne and move on. His choices in his wives are so transparently reactions to the previous ones that they're almost like sisters, whose personalities are often largely a reaction to and a desire to be different from, what has come before. Katherine was maternal and safe and religious. Anne was sexy and feisty and opinionated. Jane is quiet, virginal, and seems to have no opinions at all. If only Henry didn't always pivot 180 degrees, he might have found a more suitable match along the way, but instead he is a man of extremes.

Meanwhile, Cromwell works behind the scenes, giving advice, setting up meetings, and eventually having revenge on the men responsible for the downfall of Wolsey, all the while massaging relationships with foreign ambassadors and of course, bringing about the end of Anne Boleyn. It was simply, in the end, the only thing he could do with Anne, given the circumstances and Henry's desires.

Once again Ms. Mantel has beautifully captured the richness of the era, from the dirt to the clothes to the layout of castle bedrooms. You feel like you're there while reading it. I found this one a tad easier to follow, probably from familiarity. It was a faster read and not just because it was shorter--I didn't struggle as much with the language and the almost stream-of-consciousness writing which sometimes leaves the reader confused as to who the many "he"s in a sentence are, or if someone is talking or not. None of that is a bad thing here--those things, when done well, only bring more atmosphere to the read. It is a complicated time with confusing loyalties and politics, so if you feel a little lost, that's accurate. Once again, I stand enthralled by Cromwell's power, and mastery of every situation.

This book is published by Henry Holt, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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