Bring Up the Bodies (2012) by Hilary Mantel is that kind of book. It is the sequel to Wolf Hall (2009), a brilliant work that won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. The author, a remarkably gifted novelist with few peers, continues the compelling story of Thomas Cromwell, the lowborn man who rose to become one of Henry VIII’s closest advisers. The hero of the story, a historical enigma with a vague background, is fleshed out by Mantel as a boy who fled his father’s beatings to fight for the French, study law and become fluent in French, Latin and Italian.
Three years earlier Cromwell helped Henry annul his marriage to Katherine so he could marry the younger Anne Boleyn--a direct challenge of the church’s power that set off a tsunami of religious, political and societal turmoil that reverberated throughout 16th-century Europe. But Anne has committed two unforgivable errors: she has failed to give the king a son and grown gaunt and shrewish. He wants to be rid of Anne and it is up to Cromwell to give the king what he wants.
Bring Up the Bodies, like its predecessor, is written in the present tense. It is an excellent choice because telling the story in the active tense allows the events to unfold before us. This approach ratchets up the tension and heightens the suspense with every page: all it takes is one wrong move and all could be lost.
This novel more than stands on its own. It might even be a more compelling read than the award-winning Wolf Hall. Mantel does not just make Cromwell powerful but sympathetic—a remarkable feat for a character described in the first volume as “like a murderer”. And she accomplishes it without violating the historical record. Bring Up the Bodies just might be the best historical novel of 2012.
Review by Peter Critchley from the Vernon Branch