Hilary Mantel continues to follow to the life of Thomas Cromwell in Bring Up the Bodies.
BRING UP THE BODIES
Fourth Estate, $32.99
Fans of Hilary Mantel's 2009 Man Booker Prize winner, Wolf Hall, will be pleased to learn that its much-anticipated sequel is every bit as intriguing, engrossing and brilliantly written - despite comprising significantly fewer pages.
This second instalment of a planned trilogy about Henry VIII's England from the perspective of his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, picks up where Wolf Hall left off: Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon has been annulled and Anne Boleyn is his new queen, but already the king's roving eye has fallen on another, Jane Seymour.
Bring Up the Bodies follows Anne's downfall and Jane's advancement to become Henry's third wife, but is focused on Cromwell as mastermind of these intense, far-reaching - even deadly - personal and political manoeuvrings at court. It becomes apparent that Cromwell, though ever diligent in fulfilling his king's wishes, has personal motivations influencing the manner in which he resolves Henry's latest marital problems. There are new allegiances to make and old scores to settle.
Delving deep into the very plausible psychology of a familiar historical saga is fundamental to this novel being so fresh. It's not about discovering that Anne will be executed and Jane become queen, but the labyrinthine journey towards these outcomes, populated by nuanced characters who come alive on the page rather than one-dimensional historical figures. They are very human, full of doubts, ambition, desire, resentment and, sometimes, a little mercy.
Mantel's Cromwell, a brilliant, driven, morally ambiguous man of humble origins, is as complex as any character in contemporary literature. Despite his historical reputation for ruthlessness, this Cromwell is likely to elicit considerable admiration and sympathy from readers. He is still ruthless, but we are given insights as to why, to what degree and how it's in contrast to his more gentle traits - according to the author's well-informed imaginings at any rate; there is no documentation revealing the real Cromwell's inner life, though if there were, it's fairly certain the meticulous Mantel would have read them.
The world she conjures is rich with historical detail, but it is so effortlessly done, so restrained, that it's as if these events took place yesterday, not five centuries ago.
The dialogue is particularly effective in creating a sense of verisimilitude. There's no ''thee'' and ''thou'' nonsense, just a courtly formality at appropriate moments and smatterings of archaic yet evocative slang (especially sexual terms) at others, all seamlessly massaged into the language of modernity.
Unfortunately, Mantel maintains her artful penchant for pronouns over the clarity of names, especially when referring to Cromwell. This adds unnecessary complexity to an already demanding story (even Cromwell has a chart to keep track of all the players, while we are provided with a list. This is invaluable as many characters are interchangeably referred to by their titles of office, titles of nobility, nicknames, given names and family relationships).
Occasionally one might read a paragraph, even an entire page, thinking one person is speaking or acting, only to realise ''he'' is someone else entirely. Unlike in Wolf Hall, Mantel sometimes makes concessions to clarity by adding ''he, Cromwell'' to ambiguous pronoun references, which seems rather clumsy.
This is undoubtedly a challenging read, especially for those only vaguely familiar with the historic inspiration or who have not read Wolf Hall. That said, this could be enjoyed as a stand-alone novel.
The rewards are great, however, both for history buffs and those who love bloody political thrillers.