I coincidentally was reading Hilary Mantel’s historical novel “Bring Up the Bodies” around the same time as I was watching the “Diamond Jubilee” celebration, commemorating Queen Elizabeth II’s amazing 60 years on the throne of England. Perhaps there’s not a direct correlation, but I’m definitely getting my fix of English royal history lately, with its influential monarchs and their reigns of power, accomplishments, struggles and scandals. It’s fascinating material to be sure.
Mantel’s latest novel about Thomas Cromwell, the court of King Henry VIII and the destruction of Queen Anne Boleyn has received unanimous gushing reviews as did her previous book of their earlier years, “Wolf Hall,” which was awarded the 2009 Man Booker Prize. The print critics love her, with Janet Maslin of the New York Times going as far to say that “Bring Up the Bodies” is “this year’s best beach read” and the “one must-read of the season.”
Best beach read? Hmm, I had to read it. But now that I’m done, I can tell you, if you like “War and Peace” or Shakespeare on the beach then perhaps you will definitely like this one. Otherwise, I’d stick to something lighter and easier to sink into. “Bodies” definitely has the elements of a beach book, with power plays, intrigue, rumors, gossip, revenge, adultery, violence, but it swirls around for quite a while, muting its impact. Its narrative language though beautiful by Mantel is a bit of a challenge for the beach; it’s not Olde English but it’s not exactly contemporary either. You’ll have to work a bit to get the array of characters and who is speaking when and what is being said. At times it can be a bit confusing or even a slog to read, but I did successfully plow through it and came away with a more vivid picture of the poisonous atmosphere at the court during Anne Boleyn’s last months.
You don’t have to read its predecessor “Wolf Hall” to understand “Bring Up the Bodies”; I went right to the latter one, which is meant to be the second in a trilogy -- all told from Thomas Cromwell’s point of view. Cromwell was King Henry VIII’s right hand man, his secretary and power broker, who comes to believe he must destroy the Queen before she destroys him. Mantel paints him as more human than just ruthlessly evil, which is how he is often portrayed, though he’s still cleverly shrewd and harsh in the end.
The book takes place over nine months from 1535 to 1536. As it begins, Queen Anne Boleyn has replaced King Henry VIII’s first wife Katharine of Aragon with much ado, leading the King to break with the Catholic Church in Rome. All is momentarily at peace. But after three years, the king grows restless as Anne is unable to produce a male heir and he begins to favor Jane Seymour. Thereafter the Queen’s days are numbered. Cromwell uncovers a web, eventually arresting her along with five men on trumped up charges of adultery and incest (with her brother). Whether she is actually guilty as charged is a mystery preserved in the book, though it sides with it being unlikely. In an interview, Hilary Mantel has said the Queen gives the impression of being guilty, whether or not she really is, is not known.
Surely the book is quite dark; everybody’s out for themselves and trying to gain their advantage with the King and the court. It seems Machiavellian. Some have sympathies with the last Queen, while others are aligning with the future, Jane Seymour. The plot gangs up on Anne Boleyn, and it is quite chilling to read about a woman’s place then and the abuse of the court’s power -- all because Henry VIII wanted a new wife. There’s not really a redeeming character in the book to latch onto, and despite what it’s about, not a lot of action. I was hoping for more. It’s mostly filled with the verbal sparring, court gossip and posturing amid its unseemingly cast. I took away quite a bit from it but not without considerable persistence and effort -- something that I don't hope for in my next (real) beach read.