Sunday, June 8, 2014

Completed: Bring Up the Bodies


Here's the story: at a Bar Mitzvah in February of 2010, I was sitting with some other book nerds, and they recommended Wolf Hall to me. It had already been on my radar because it won the Booker Prize, but a personal recommendation always moves books up to the top of the list.

I never wrote anything official about Wolf Hall, as I'm fairly certain it predates this blog. However, Wolf Hall was just a thrilling read, partly because of the difficulty. I'm not often challenged by reading, but something about this one---the historical background, the writing style, the complex story---made it just an awesome read. I loved it. A few years later, in the summer of 2012, the sequel came out. I believe I pre-ordered it on Amazon, but I didn't read it. The next March, it was in the Tournament of Books, and I read *every other book that year* except for Bring Up the Bodies. Weird, right? To be honest, I think I just feared disappointment. What if it wasn't as good, and it ruined Wolf Hall, too? (Let's call that the Breaking Dawn effect, mm'kay?)

You'll be pleased to know that Bring Up the Bodies was just as great of a read as Wolf Hall, but in an interesting and different way. BUtB was highly readable, fast-paced even, while Wolf Hall was more measured and slow to unfold. The novels are set during the reign of Henry VIII, but the main character is his right-hand man and advisor, Thomas Cromwell. In the first, Cromwell engineers the dissolution of Henry's marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon. This causes the break with the Church, and also paves the way for Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn. The novel ends with the execution of Thomas More, but rather than showing him as a heroic protector of religion, Wolf Hall shows him as small-minded and petty.

Bring Up the Bodies takes up a few years later, as Henry's marriage to Anne is failing. I will be honest that the first 50 or 75 pages I probably didn't pay as much attention as I should have. I read it in fits and starts as school was ending. However, it picked up, or at the very least I became more focused, and it was a great read. I'm mad at myself for putting it off for so long!

In this book, the focus is again on Cromwell as he leverages Henry's will to end his marriage to Anne in favor of the more genteel, and less threatening figure, of Jane Seymore. One of the interesting things about this book is that Jane herself is a mere pawn in the machinations of the court, whereas Anne is a complex character with her own desires in Wolf Hall. In BUtB, events start to change direction as Anne is unable to produce a male heir, and Katherine of Aragon dies. Henry starts to wonder if Anne has duped him, and his desire for a new woman, one who is more pliable, leads him to think he can cast off yet another wife. It is Cromwell who makes it happen.

Believe it or not, even though you know full well what's going to happen, Mantel is the master of creating a sense of dread and despair as we watch Cromwell set his traps and snare his prey. It becomes clear that his ruthlessness is bound by nothing---and that he is using the opportunity to not only get rid of Anne, but also to settle some old scores. At one point, he explains his mercilessness by saying, "Once you have exhausted the process of negotiation and compromise, once you have fixed on the destruction of an enemy, that destruction must be swift and it must be perfect. Before you even glance in his direction, you should have his name on a warrant, the ports blocked, his wife and friends bought, his heir under your protection, his money in your strong room and his dog running to your whistle. Before he wakes in the morning, you should have the axe in your hand" (351). In other words, watching him take no mercy as he fulfills the King's wishes is to watch a master at work.

I would say, the other fascinating thing to watch in this book is how she sets up Cromwell's own demise. We know that the King will turn against Cromwell one day, and this book is full of warnings, of his own consideration of how he might act if he were ever facing death, and is all foreshadowing for the last and third installment of the story, scheduled for a 2015 release. This time, I promise to not wait to finish it.


As a weird aside, I have only one complaint about this book: I intensely disliked the paper it was printed on. I know this is churlish, but it was made of recycled paper, but the feel of the paper was rough and unpleasant. It felt like rather puply construction paper. I usually don't have a problem with recycled paper, obviously, but for some reason, the entire time I was reading, I was sort of bothered by the tactile feeling of these particular pages. There was a disconnect between the quality of the paper and the hardback book. I guess I expect cheap paper in mysteries and paperbacks? I don't know. It bothered me more than I'd care to admit.


  1. I'm glad it lived up to the hype -- after waiting so long to read it, what a bummer it would have been if it sucked (so stop kicking yourself for waiting -- you just "built anticipation!" Yeah! That's it!)

    And even though your descriptions of these book make them seem absolutely compelling and fascinating to me, when I try to read a passage or see any other synopsis, I think, "Nope. Not for me." I don't know why... my lack of historical knowledge? My inability to distinguish white men from one another? I'll admin I've never sat down and, say "committed to 100 pages" of Wolf Hall, though... perhaps I would be engrossed. For now, I'll just enjoy them vicariously through you. Heh.

    As for the paper thing -- not churlish! You're spending a *lot* of time with that physical object while reading that book! Would it be petty to complain about an uncomfortable chair you had to sit in for many hours? Nooo. So I think complaining about an uncomfortably object you had to touch for hours on end is perfectly valid! (On the flip side, when I held your pBook version of 1Q84, I thought, "This might have *improved* my experience of this book -- the pages and design are so lovely!" :))

  2. Side note... "Bring Up the Bodies" still gets set to the tune of "Roll Out the Barrel" in my head. :D

  3. I wonder if it's a good audio book? But I bet it would be weird. There's this ting she does where she always (more so in Wolf Hall) refers to Cromwell as "he" regardless of antecedent. It's confusing. But her fix in BUtB was often "he, Cromwell" which was also weird.

    I get it. In fact last night, at a table full of teachers, more than a few said they also struggled with Wolf Hall and didn't make it through. What's fascinating is just *how different* BUtB was just fast paced in a way that was so different. And the parts where Cromwell interrogates people and sets up all his dominoes to have Anne beheaded? Shivers!