“Don’t judge a book by its cover,” the saying goes, but that is exactly what I did when I brought Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel home. As a library assistant, it’s my task to load a cart full of returned books and put them all back in their rightful places on the shelves of the library. During a few hours of work I handle dozens of books. Most I know from their covers. I greet the ones I’ve read, put my favourites in prominent places and try to hide the more repulsive titles in places where they won’t be so easily found. When I grabbed Bring Up The Bodies from my cart, I couldn’t just place it on a shelve. With an approving look, I let my eyes roam the cover. An attractive book. Nice and shiny. Strong title. Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2012. Large. Handles well. Compared to some examples in the library definitely “sexy”. Before I knew it, I put Bring Up The Bodies back in my cart. On its cover. After all, I didn’t want to risk another customer also being grasped by the looks of this book and subsequently running off with my find.
Once I was at home I studied what I’d brought from my place of work. An historical novel about Henry VIII. Part two in a series that actually starts with “Wolf Hall”, but luckily it stands alone as well. Historically, I’m mainly interested in antiquity and by the time Henry VIII turns up, my attention is long gone. Also, starting with part two in a series is never a really great plan. For a moment, I considered bringing the book back to the library. But it had such a nice cover…
During the first twenty pages, I was mainly concerned with getting to know the great cast of characters. The most important figures are King Henry VIII, just divorced from wife nr. 1 (Katherine), now married to wife nr. 2 (Anne Bolen) and Thomas Cromwell, his most important adviser adn the person through whose point of view the story is told. For all the other characters there is a convenient register of names available at the beginning of the book, complete with a short explanation about whose who and why. I barely needed it in the end. Hilary Mantel takes your hand, sucks you into the story and effortlessly intrigues you for hundreds of pages. Her writing style is exciting, her use of language exquisite, her characters all complex and interesting. Mantel is perfectly capable of finding underlying motives for the historical facts that have been recorded, without having to put in the least bit of effort, it seems. Her narrative flows smoothly and the reader is left with the feeling that Mantel could’ve written about three times as much before her extensive knowledge on the subject would start to get the least bit exhausted.
Henry VIII is in a tricky situation. His divorce with Katherine hasn’t made him popular in England and because of his marriage with Anne Boleyn, he has broken with the Pope in Rome. His kingdom is being threatened from all sides by other nations and the kind is surrounded by people with borderless ambitions. Wost of all, Anne Boleyn does not seem to be able to give him his long-desired son and heir. Meanwhile, Henry becomes increasingly enamoured with Jane Seymour, a young girl from a somewhat less influential family, unwed and thus available. It is up to Thomas Cromwell to make sure that the realm stays on course. He’s a diplomat, adviser, lawyer, but also a ruthless man who, without interference of his conscience, is capable of eliminating political opponents of Henry. Now the position of Anne Boleyn has become doubtful, it is up to Cromwell to get rid of her and make way for wife nr. 3.
In other adaptations of this period of history Thomas Cromwell is usually painted as the villain. With Mantel, this is much more nuanced. Because the readers experience the events through the eyes of Cromwell, they become his accomplices. They understand his motivations, fears, loyality to the king. They see him as a family man, hard worker, good friend, ruthless politician.
Personally I can’t wait until I, when I’m back from holiday, get my hands on part one “Wolf Hall” and in 2015 hopefully on the third and final instalment of the trilogy (“The Mirror and The Light”). When it comes to looks, Bring Up The Bodies is a gorgoues book, but, as I should’ve known from the beginning, what’s on the inside is even better.