Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s sequel to the spellbinding Wolf Hall, is one of the most anticipated books of the season. A uniquely told and utterly absorbing study of Thomas Cromwell, who rose to prominence from humble beginnings, Wolf Hall concluded with Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies plunges the reader back into the royal court just a few years later. Again, it is to Mantel’s credit that she makes this familiar story not only fresh, but a page-turner.
Though he fought for seven years to marry Anne Boleyn, by the spring of 1536, Henry was disenchanted with his new wife. Not only was Anne unable to provide him with a male heir, but the demure Jane Seymour had caught his eye and her family was moving into position as the next powerful clan. Cromwell, who masterminded the King’s divorce of Catherine of Aragon and bedding of Anne, is charged with managing another separation.
Mantel vividly paints the machinations integral to the undoing of the royal marriage. As one character remarks, “what was done can always be undone,” but this time the personal stakes are bloodier.
Shorter than Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies is also more concentrated, covering the tumultuous actions of a few months with a tight focus (the conclusion to the trilogy will take the story to 1540). Like the previous novel, it is told in the present tense and from Cromwell’s perspective, which brings an extraordinary immediacy to the storytelling.
Readers will remember Cromwell as an intriguing mixture of tenderness and ruthless politicking. His common origins and love of family make him a sympathetic character, even when the events he helps to bring about are heinous in nature. Watching Cromwell meet and even anticipate the cruel demands of his monarch, we are privy to the full strength of his political skills as well as the sense of wistfulness and loss that shadows his every move.