I was in a rut where I would start a book, read about 50 pages, and then lose interest. If there is something that is more deserving of my preoccupation, a book that fails to capture and hold my attention tends to be a casualty. After a couple of these books, I went with a sure thing, Hilary Mantel's novel Bring
Up the Bodies. The reason why I was so confident that I could finish this book without the stumbling blocks that I have faced in the recent past, is the subject matter of the book and the intriguing point of view of a familiar narrator. Bring Up the Bodies is the sequel to the Booker Prize winning novel Wolf Hall, and takes place in Henry the Eighth's reign through the eyes of his Master Secretary, Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall features the rise of Anne Boleyn and Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, and Bring Up the Bodies focuses on Henry's growing affection for Jane Seymour and the ultimate fall of Anne Boleyn.
I enjoyed the narration of Thomas Cromwell in the first book and this second novel did not disappoint. Firstly, I am of the belief that there are way too many novels set in the Tudor era which feature a female narrator. The market is crawling with them due to the success of authors like Philippa Gregory, and I am a little sick of hearing from the women who surrounded Henry. Cromwell is in a more fascinating position as the most powerful bureaucrat in the country and right-hand man to Henry during some tumultuous years. His most intriguing quality is that though he is an influential figure, his humble beginnings as the son of a blacksmith often cause him to be both the ultimate insider and total outsider at Court. Whenever an issue arises for the king, Cromwell employs intelligence, cunning and thuggery, and simply gets the job done. This approach, particularly from someone of low origins, causes Cromwell to have more enemies among the courtiers and there is a sense throughout the novel that Cromwell is aware of the riskiness of the path that he is walking, and has a feeling that one day, he too will be the subject of the king's wrath. Thomas Cromwell is a bit of an unlikely hero, based on the fact that he has remained neglected by historians, but Mantel seems to view their oversight in her favour as an author of fiction.
One of my favourite lines in the book comes in the Author's Note where Mantel discusses her challenges with regard to the story cutting out of certain characters and the role of Jane Rochford. Aside from those points, she asks the reader to view her novel as "a proposal" of how the events unfolded. I like this approach, because I think it is the right way to think about historical fiction, where authors use varying degrees of fictionalization when it comes to political figures and events. Tudor England, with its constant drama, has provided a lot of fodder for novels, and it is a subject matter that I keep coming back to out of a morbid fascination. I know that the story of Thomas Cromwell is not over and I look forward to another stellar sequel, and will confess that Bring Up the Bodies has been hanging around on my nightstand even though I finished the book over a week ago. The characters have stayed with me in a way that they rarely do, and the book that I am currently reading has suffered the neglect of a good book hangover.