The forest stretched ahead for days. Sometimes antique weapons are unearthed: axes that, wielded with double fist, could cut down horse and rider. Think of the great limbs of those dead men, stirring under the soil. War was their nature, and war is always keen to come again. It's not just the past you think of, as you ride these fields. It's what's latent in the soil, what's breeding; it's the days to come, the wars unfought, the injuries and deaths that, like seeds, the soil of England is keeping warm. You would think, to look at Henry laughing, to look at Henry praying, to look at him leading his men through the forest path, that he sits as secure on his throne as he does on his horse. Looks can deceive. By night, he lies awake; he stares at the carved roof beams; he numbers his days. He says, 'Cromwell, Cromwell, what shall I do?' Cromwell, save me from the Emperor. Cromwell, save me from the Pope. Then he calls in his Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and demands to know, 'Is my soul damned?'For nearly five centuries now, the passion play that is the life and times of Henry VIII's court and king has fascinated historians and laypeople alike. With the exception of relatively minor antecedents such as Wycliffe and the Lollards, England in the 16th century did not seem to be as ripe for rebellion against papal authority/church traditions as were several of the German states; it was more of a top-down phenomenon there than in the Holy Roman Empire. Yet what caused Henry VIII to first divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, and then proceed through that infamous litany of "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived?" Who were the masterminds, if any such Faustian ministers could be said to be thus, that shepherded the king to divorce England from the Catholic faith? For centuries, these questions have bedeviled contemporaries and their descendents alike and the literary works that have touched upon this, ranging from Shakespeare to Robert Bolt to hagiographies of St./Sir Thomas More and others such as Thomas Cranmer, have populated bookshops for centuries.
The latest entry into this realm of historical speculative fiction is a planned trilogy by Hilary Mantel that focuses (at first) on the life and career of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from the lower classes to become one of the chief architects of Henry VIII's annulment of his marriage to Catherine and the subsequent declaration of the King of England being head of the Catholic dioceses there. These events Mantel covered deftly and with aplomb in her 2009 Booker Prize-winning opening volume, Wolf Hall. While that novel was well-written and added excellent moments of narrative tension, it pales in comparison to the second volume, Bring Up the Bodies, which covers events from after the execution of More in 1534 to the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife, in 1536.
Historical novels are very difficult to write convincingly. Too often, novelists find themselves constricted by the known facts to create interesting characters out of historical people, especially when these characters are famous. It is often easier to create a fictional character who manages to summarize the chaotic or exciting events of a time while s/he only intersects fittingly with the "real" people. Or perhaps, as Alexandre Dumas was wont to do with his Musketeer novels, a minor historical person has their role expanded and fictionalized to an extent to create a narrative that is both "real" and exciting. Mantel in both Wolf Hall and here in Bring Up the Bodies, has chosen a third, more difficult path, that of using major historical figures to reconstruct a tumultuous and sometimes mysterious epoch in English history. Too easily the characters and situation could have devolved into a shallow mystery/thriller-type novel; one only has to look at Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time to see a historical reconstruction that takes on too many aspects of the murder-mystery for it to be viewed as anything beyond just that.
No, what Mantel's representations of not just Cromwell, but also Boleyn, the ambassador from the court of Emperor Charles V, Cranmer, and the divorced Catherine show is a complex weaving of character and situation to create a narrative tension that slowly builds through the first half of the novel before it explodes in the novel's final chapters. For centuries, the events leading up to Boleyn being charged with adultery and treason were shrouded with mystery. The extant evidence is contradictory in places and there are hints that political machinations involving the family of Jane Seymour (Henry VIII's soon-to-be third wife, who later died giving birth to the sickly future King Edward VI) did lie, if not quite at the center of the charges against Boleyn, at least somewhat more than just a peripheral role in the matter. Mantel judiciously notes this without overplaying this possible angle.
If anything, what makes Bring Up the Bodies' second half so strong is that Mantel has created several plausible possibilities for the charges against Boleyn that the reader may find herself trying to anticipate which may be the strongest clue to the eventual denouement. Yet the novel is more than the presentation of evidence regarding a historical political intrigue. It also excels at being a great character-driven novel. Whereas Wolf Hall centered around Cromwell to the near-exclusion of other PoVs, here in Bring Up the Bodies the perspectives of other characters adds to the building drama. The fate of Boleyn feels as foreordained and morbidly fascinating as that of Santiago Nasar's murder as outlined in Gabriel García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. This creation of tension within a fictionalization of an event already well-known is impressive and Mantel's opulent descriptions contrasted with the shifts in perspective is nothing short of brilliant.
Bring Up the Bodies certainly is a deserving winner of the 2012 Booker Prize. Its prose is excellent, the characterizations are top-notch, and the narrative construction not only is ambitious but it also manages to achieve its lofty goals. In a year filled with excellent contenders, it stands out due to the difficulties (noted above) that it managed to overcome. Mantel joins the rare company of those authors who have won the Booker Prize twice and she is the first writer to have a sequel win this prestigious award. Simply put, it is the best out of a group of books that is much stronger than last year's weak shortlist.