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Mr. Secretary Cromwell: "sleek, plump and densely inaccessible",
This review is from: Bring Up the Bodies (Hardcover)
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That's how Hilary Mantel describes Thomas Cromwell in the afterword to this tour de force, the second novel in a trilogy that follows one of the men most instrumental in transforming Henry VIII and his reign, the man who dedicated his life to the study of the king and how to fulfill the latter's wishes and desires. After years of rising in the king's service and having to battle with the old guard, the nobles and gentlemen -- "flattering them, cajoling them, seeking always an easy way of working, a compromise" -- Cromwell is now indispensable to Henry. He also is one of the first to realize, within the first 50 pages of the book, that the king's despair at his lack of an heir nearly three years after his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell's own frustration with these nobles, can be neatly resolved at the same time. "I have probably, he thinks, gone as far as I can to accommodate them. Now they must accommodate me, or be removed."
If you have already read Wolf Hall: A Novel and relished Mantel's ability to capture a period in time now nearly five centuries distant, you may as well stop reading this review immediately and hit the "buy now" button to order this sequel, because the second volume in the proposed trilogy is even better. The focus is tighter - on the nine months or so leading up to the fall and execution of Anne Boleyn -- and once again Mantel recounts the events through the eyes of the consummate politician, Cromwell, who has learned well from Machiavelli and who yet still earns the understanding of readers, if not always our sympathy. Cromwell's motivations and goals may be sympathetic -- he seeks to run the kingdom well, to find a way to school and support male orphans who are abandoned (and who thus will support the female orphans), to mentor educated young men -- even when what it takes to do that makes us squirm with unease. Even when those ends justify the means of getting rid of a queen who has not done her duty. "If she will not go, she must be pushed, and I must push her, who else?" To that end, justice becomes utilitarian: it is not who is guilty, so much as what they may be guilty of, and what guilt is of use to Cromwell, acting on the king's behalf.
This is historical fiction at its best. I've been reading novels set in the Tudor era since I picked up Murder Most Royal: The Story of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard by Jean Plaidy more than 40 years ago, and after the deluge of novels set around Anne Boleyn's rise and fall -- many of them pedestrian or thinly-disguised romances in fancy clothes -- had given up on any hope of finding a really good novel in the midst of all the pages written about Henry and his wives. But here it is. Mantel has crafted a novel that is not only about Henry and Anne, but about their era; about the unease that prevails in a kingdom with no legitimate male heir to a dynasty only two generations old and whose reigning monarch has turned his realm upside town by rejecting the pope's rule. She writes about the transformation of Tudor England, as men of ability, knowledge and focus, ranging from Cardinal Wolsey in the first volume to Cromwell and his apprentices (some of whom will outlive Henry) displace the nobility as the king's top advisors, to the disgruntlement of the dukes and earls and their scions. At the same time, Mantel never allows the substance to detract from the fact that she is telling the story of one man; of Cromwell, who rises to power because his elders and betters recognize the unique combination of ability and tenacity. (Here there are flashbacks to Cromwell's earlier life, chronicled in part in Wolf Hall: A Novel, showing how during his days on the continent, Cromwell began working as a common laborer only to be "talent spotted" and brought into the accounting house of a powerful Italian merchant.)
One of the criticisms of Mantel's first book in this trilogy was her frequent use of "he" in place of Cromwell, which some readers found awkward. In this case, she has taken pains in some points to address that, replacing a simple "he" with "he, Cromwell" and although there were a few points in the early pages where I was occasionally unclear as to who was thinking or speaking, I quickly found this retreated to the background. Indeed, I began to get a glimpse of what Mantel may be trying to accomplish with this. If Cromwell is as "densely inaccessible" as she suggests in her afterward, then a first person narrative would be too intimate; would give the reader too much insight too early into his actions and motivations. Mantel's style strikes the perfect compromise. Cromwell is the narrator; we are clearly seeing the Tudor court and England through his eyes, and we don't see the thoughts or views of other characters, except through the latters' actions; we are clearly following Cromwell throughout. And yet Cromwell is always "he"; an opaque and guarded individual. Even while we get a glimpse inside his thoughts and actions as if he were addressing a diary, we can never pretend we understand him -- and it becomes all too clear why, as some of his household remind him, his mere presence can terrify people. So his final confrontations with those who stand in the way of the king and his wishes are all the more revelatory. I hadn't thought there was much more to say about the downfall of Anne Boleyn, or much to say about Cromwell: I was very wrong on both counts.
I raced through this novel, finding it impossible to put down, and now am a bit irritable that I'll have two or three years to wait to read the concluding episode in the trilogy. That's a real tribute to anyone crafting a historical novel, as I already know what happens to Cromwell himself, when, and possibly why. But now that I have read the first two books in this series, I can't wait to see how Hilary Mantel presents the "why", because I'm quite certain that she will once again present readers not only with a "thumping good read" but a novel that defies all expectations. As Wolf Hall: A Novel ended with an execution, and with a new beginning, so does this novel, and Cromwell must once again find a way to deal not only with his monarch (as he refines his imagined "Book of Henry", a guide on how to deal with the king and his moods and whims) but with an enigmatic new queen and her family. After all, as he muses, "Henry's women come trailing families, he does not find his brides in the forest hiding under a leaf."
This novel is a brilliant accomplishment; I'd urge anyone interested in history to read it as a matter of course, and even those who were lukewarm about its predecessor to at least give it a try, as I think it is better, and more focused. (I'd still rate both books as the full five stars, however.) The style, the tight plotting, the characterizations, and Mantel's ability to capture England itself and the mundane details of 16th century English life, are without parallel. This goes straight to the top of the list of the best novels I've read this year, and I can't see how it might be displaced.
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Showing 1-8 of 8 posts in this discussion
Initial post: May 16, 2012 2:38:19 PM PDT
C. J. Wright says:
Your analysis on why Mantel chose not write in the first person is most insightful and clarifying.
Posted on May 17, 2012 8:55:04 AM PDT
Julia Walker says:
good review, and i love the title quote~
Posted on May 23, 2012 10:50:24 PM PDT
S. McGee, thank you for your fine review. I was put off by Mantel's frequent use of "he" in place of Cromwell in "Wolf Hall: A Novel" and chose not to finish the book (probably my loss). Many reviewers feel that this book is better than the first in the series. I would like to read it but wonder if it truly stands on its own. What do you think? I should also mention that I know very little about the Tudor era and feel that this may keep me from enjoying and/or understanding this novel.
In reply to an earlier post on May 25, 2012 11:28:50 PM PDT
S. McGee says:
I think you can read this novel on its own, but I wouldn't advise doing so unless you knew a reasonable amount about the period -- too many of the details that give the novel its savor will end up being lost on you, particularly when Cromwell confronts the men who are accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn. It helps to understand how Cromwell came to power, and make sense of how he views himself within the world he inhabits. His experiences are utterly different from those of other courtiers, which makes him useful to Henry but also earns him enemies. I'd try Wolf Hall again, and just think of "he" as if it were "I" -- maybe that mental trick will help you get past Mantel's stylistic choice until you are caught up in the narrative? I did like this even better than Wolf Hall, although that may be because it's so much more concentrated in time and focus, so the drama and tension builds from very early on. If you're interested, you could hop over to LibraryThing.com, and the 75-book challenge group, where there will be a "tutored read" for a member, who will be reading Wolf Hall and wants help understanding exactly what you are worried about, the Tudor era in which it's set. You may find it interesting to follow along?
In reply to an earlier post on May 26, 2012 1:26:51 PM PDT
Thank you for your kind and generous response to my post. Thanks to you, I've joined LibraryThing.com (which looks absolutely wonderful!). I've discovered the "Smiley69/Chatterbox" tutored read you mentioned; however, I've yet to figure out how to join it and link it to my homepage. I've joined the "75 Books Challenge for 2012" but would appreciate some assistance on how to join the tutored read. Thanks again for responding to my post. Happy reading!
Posted on Jan 9, 2013 12:09:49 PM PST
Knut L. Seip says:
I also noticed the "Mr. Secretary Cromwell: "sleek, plump and densely inaccessible", but I guess I was more annoyed by the inaccessibility than most readers. The book is a novel (so it says), that should give more freedom to be creative. So, maybe I should conclude, it is not a novel, it is a brilliantly written psychoanalytic study (without notes).
Posted on Nov 10, 2014 3:01:51 PM PST
Kathrin Wagner says:
Thank you for an excellent review! I read both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in print, while recovering from an illness, and was so impressed that I returned to both this Fall, but listening instead to the audio versions. What a revelation! I had not realized I had missed so much - how fine the writing is, how intensely the characters and the era are imagined, how delicately the complexities are unveiled. And the "he, Cromwell" problem entirely resolved itself in the spoken word versions. I preferred the reader of Wolf Hall, but Bring Up the Bodies is as well read, and seems to follow Wolf Hall as an example - in fact, these two count as among the very best audiobooks I have ever listened to. So do get hold of the CDs if the style of either book in print seems daunting.
In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2014 7:47:27 PM PST
S. McGee says:
Thanks for your comments! I have only started listening to audiobooks in the last year or two, and actually had started to wonder about trying these on audio. The experience is a radically different one, and I have found myself appreciating different details, so I may end up taking your advice, not because I didn't enjoy the books the first time, but simply because I may discover something new and different this time...
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