Bring Up the Bodies - Hilary Mantel Excerpt from an excellent review atThe Guardian


Mantel's risk, as it was in Wolf Hall, is to tell the story in the present tense, to give us Cromwell, who will himself be dead in four years' time, not seen from above, hurtling towards his inevitable end, but living his life moment by terrifying moment in a world where every day might be the last. "1 May 1536. This, surely, is the last day of knighthood. What happens after this… will be no more than a dead parade with banners, a contest of corpses. The king will leave the field. The day will end, broken off, snapped like a shinbone, spat out like smashed teeth."

Rarely has the intelligence of a novel been so dependent upon grammatical tense. All Cromwell knows about his own history is the past, and he will often return to scenes from his youth in Putney where, the son of a violent blacksmith, he ran away to wander in Europe, returning 27 years later as a man "at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop's palace or inn yard", able to "draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury" – most of which we see him doing. Mantel suggests that it is Cromwell's origins, together with his almost total absence of friends and family (his beloved wife and daughters have died of the plague) that allows him to play the role he does: unlike the Howards, the Boleyns or the Seymours, he has no clan to serve or name to protect but his own.

While Mantel gives us the events as Cromwell sees them, the reader is asked to see Cromwell as Mantel sees him: not the cold-eyed bureaucrat of Holbein's portrait or the ruthless Terminator of the Tudor age but as worldly, unsentimental, melancholic, and brilliantly in tune with his time, just as he would be brilliantly in tune with our own. Analogies have been made with Stalin's chief of secret police and the Inner party member O'Brien in Orwell's 1984, but Cromwell's stocky person moves through these pages more like that of a mobster. Mantel's Cromwell is a sex symbol: the kind of man women want to have and men want to be.

In a court of preening noblemen presided over by a sobbing king who cannot sire a heir, Cromwell is admired by us and hated by everyone else because, as he puts it, "I was always first up in the morning. I was always the last man standing. I was always in the money. I always got the girl. Show me a heap, and I'm on top of it."

Is Bring Up the Bodies better than, worse than or equal to Wolf Hall? While lacking, necessarily, the shocking freshness of the first book, it is narrower, tighter, at times a more brilliant and terrifying novel. Of her historical interpretations, Mantel says in her afterword that she is "making the reader a proposal, an offer", but what is striking is how little concerned she is with the reader. Her prose makes no concessions to the disorientated: a moment's distraction and you have to start the page again. Mantel, like Cromwell, seems not to mind if we are there or not: she is writing, as he was living, for herself alone.