It seems fair to assume a statute of limitations for book review "spoilers," so one feels comfortable stating that Hilary Mantel's splendid new novel, Bring Up the Bodies, concerns the events leading up to the execution of Anne Boleyn.
This is a much tighter book than the Man Booker prize-winning Wolf Hall, to which it is an immediate sequel. It covers a span of less than a year and the plot is rigorously focused on Henry VIII's growing desire to be rid of his second wife, especially after she miscarries a son.
Publishers always assert that a follow-up book like this can be read without having read the original. It can be. It shouldn't be. The connections are too direct, even though Mantel is careful to provide summaries of "need to know" elements. Once more we see and analyze events through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Henry's chief adviser, and Cromwell's view of the court and the world is strongly shaped by events that occur in the earlier novel.
One major thread, involving the targeting of courtiers accused of adultery with Anne, ties closely (and perhaps too neatly) to Cromwell's personal revenge for their mockery of his late patron and mentor, Cardinal Wolsey.
Wolf Hall was a broader, significantly more agenda-driven work. Mantel clearly wanted to offer an alternative to the customary image of Cromwell as a villain of those dark days. There were elements of gilding the lily as she flashed her version of his brilliance and foresight at court, along with his benign hand at home with family and protégés.
The first book was very much about reversing the judgment of history. Sainted Thomas More was offered as a hypocrite, a zealot and even a sadist, whereas the usually maligned Cromwell, was our thoughtful, hard-edged, but well-meaning viewpoint character, damaged by but stronger because of a vicious father (a character entirely invented). In this reversal, Mantel followed a novelistic tradition that includes, memorably, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, which also took on More (and Shakespeare) in trying to revive the reputation of Richard III, defined for centuries by them as an evil hunchback.
In Bring Up the Bodies, Mantel backs off slightly from this purpose. In part, because More is dead as the book opens. That body is only brought up in memory. She does continue with another theme of the first book: presenting Cromwell as a "new man," aware of commerce, the wider world, proper accounting, a relatively secular (again, modern) figure trying to guide England away from savage religious warfare. Here, too, she is in a secure line of modern historical fiction. The late, great Dorothy Dunnett, in her Niccolò series, did the same with a fictional protagonist, one (like Cromwell) of low birth, with a head for figures, who moves into and among the nobility of Europe half a century earlier.
It is worth noting that Dunnett's character is invented. Mantel is working with a real man. In an afterword, she writes, "I am not claiming authority for my version. I am making the reader an offer, a proposal." She means, specifically, her version of the conduct of Anne Boleyn and those surrounding her, but the point is a wider one.
It seems thoughtful and properly diffident for a novelist making historical figures into characters that suit her purposes to concede this, but the language of transaction – an offer, a proposal – is slightly worrisome. In the mercantile world (and Mantel is writing about that, in part) for buyers to benefit from something being only a "proposal" they must be able to evaluate it. Very few readers of historical fiction are in a position to interrogate what a skilled writer offers them as a version of the past. The end-of-book concession raises as many questions as it addresses.
That said, what the novel itself offers is richly intelligent pleasure. This is not a Tudor romance of kisses snatched in candlelit palace recesses by dashing courtiers and elegantly gowned ladies-in-waiting. It is a work that conveys shadows, danger, ambition, suspicion, multiple levels of intrigue and, toward the end, a rising level of fear as Cromwell – no lily gilded here – sets out to manoeuvre Anne toward the executioner's sword. The king has made it clear he wants it so, and Cromwell serves the king, and himself in orchestrating it.
Mantel is careful: she doesn't want her protagonist to lose our sympathy, but the lawyerly assembling of a case against the queen is chilling, with the threat of the Tower of London and the rack always present for those summoned to offer their evidence.
Protecting our view of Cromwell's actions, Mantel has one of his associates say, late in the novel, "If she had reigned longer she would have given us to the dogs to eat." And Thomas Cromwell replies, "If we had let her reign longer, we would have deserved it."
Anne Boleyn is accordingly not presented as remotely likeable, but she is sharply intelligent, surrounded by enemies, losing an erratic king's affection, and watching her own ladies in waiting as they pretty much line up to offer tales (true, untrue?) of her scandalous adulteries. One can be moved to pity and fear without being offered a soft, sweet queen.
When the reader knows the end game, it takes a real measure of skill to evoke such responses in a reader without descending into the maudlin or sentimental. Mantel's skill is considerable, her writing fierce and acute.
This is, in truth, a superbly written novel. There are books where the phrasing is just about all that they are about. Sentence by over-loved sentence they unspool in silken grace, commanding us to admire their elegance. There are books, often enough bestsellers, where the prose is prose only because there's no other way, really, to write a novel (aside from a handful of poem-stories). One is reminded with these of Molière's foolish character, Monsieur Jourdain, thrilled to learn he is sophisticated enough to have been speaking in prose all his life.
Mantel's is a more profound sophistication. Her style is inextricably bound up with her story. It is dense, though not obscure. It is never anachronistically modern but eschews faux Tudor mimicry. She uses present tense almost throughout, to immerse the reader in the immediacy of things. She evokes the furtive, edgy, uneasy court of Henry VIII with sentences deploying extensive semi-colons and colons. The thoughts of Thomas Cromwell often arrive in sharp, broken passages. They are hard phrases, joined by logic, enclosed by the necessity in a dangerous time to think about many different things at once.
But Mantel also gives her reader, as a kind of gift, the presence of beauty lying just beyond, outside the poisonous intrigues. A passage on the death, after only 52 days, of the son born to Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, is concluded by Cromwell thinking on the season when that "New Year's Prince" died: "England in winter: the pall of sliding snow, blanketing the fields and palace roofs, smothering tile and gable, slipping silent over window glass; feathering the rutted tracks, weighting the boughs of oak and yew, sealing the fishes under ice and freezing the bird to the branch."
This is exquisite, but not only that: Mantel's craft is controlled. She offers this wintry vignette of the country (not the court) in a context: Cromwell's elegiac remembering what might have been, had that baby lived. Such moments are present throughout the book, the lyric images and phrasing gracefully married to the setting.
Excellence is rare, it is a reason why we value it so much. Whatever hesitations a reader might have in terms of his or her ability to judge the validity of Mantel's "proposal" as to the real people and events of a darkly shaded time, the telling of her tale is masterful.
Guy Gavriel Kay's most recent novel is Under Heaven.