My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Hilary Mantel opened her trilogy about the life and times of Thomas Cromwell with Wolf Hall, winner of the Man Booker Prize. Now it continues, seamlessly, with Bring Up the Bodies. It is to her great credit that she breathed sympathetic life into the much maligned Cromwell, who emerges in this series as a humane, decent, and capable individual who might actually be interesting to know. To read these books is to plunge into the world of Henry VIII and his courtiers, who showed remarkable courage – along with naive optimism – as they served this king in his descent into megalomania. Anyone of your colleagues in this world, where survival is the name of the game could, and probably would, become your enemy should the need arise. Thomas is a self-made man, abused by his father and determined to make his way in the world. He seems as surprised as anyone that he, the blacksmith’s boy, could become privy councillor to the king. But the comments that the nobles constantly make about his humble origins do rankle. He must refer to a chart to untangle all the aristocratic family alliances, but luckily, Cromwell possesses a long, prodigious memory to bolster his drive to survive. When Henry tires of Anne Boleyn, it falls to Cromwell to bring her down to make way for Jane Seymour. Not an easy task, but Thomas must accomplish it, and who is to complain if he finds that those who had a hand in corrupting La Boleyn are also those who belittled him? It is here that Cromwell’s ruthless, brutal side comes to the fore, but Anne’s imprisonment and execution are treated with sympathy.
Should you choose to read Bring Up the Bodies, pay close attention to the detail in the book’s first half, because it’s of vast importance to the action in the second. Cromwell did what he had to, by his own lights and those of Henry VIII. We don’t have to like or admire it, but to understand it is fascinating and edifying