With many thanks to Audiobook Jukebox and Macmillan Audio, I had the opportunity to listen to Hilary Mantel’s remarkable new novel, Bring Up The Bodies. You may have encountered books about Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell previously, but I challenge any reader to find a richer depiction of the Tudors’ intrigue.
Historical accounts of the demise of Anne Boleyn have repeatedly examined the weeks leading to her death with an unflinching eye. This rendition by Mantel brilliantly shares Anne’s fall from grace through the calculating eyes of Thomas Cromwell. I found this take on Tudor history captivating, and would be remiss if I did not note that Mantel’s exhaustive research was evident throughout the story. Her attention to detail is meticulous and unwavering. The dialogue is sharp, the plotting is merciless, and the physical descriptions are reminiscent of art. If the period were not so long ago, you might be convinced that the author witnessed everything first hand.
With the exiled death of the discarded Queen Katherine, Queen Anne’s bloom quickly fades. King Henry’s chase of Anne is long over. Anne’s sharp tongue is now regarded harshly. Most importantly, Anne has yet to produce a male heir. Henry’s inevitable wandering eye has fallen on the soft-spoken Jane Seymour, and while that family prepares itself for riches, promotions and royalty, Henry directs Cromwell to annul his marriage to Anne. Considering the lengths that were reached to destroy his first marriage, this will be no small feat. Lies that were constructed to help Henry rid himself of Katherine must be dismantled and repurposed, and broken relationships must be mended as a means to an end. To be effective, Cromwell needs to create the ultimate blueprint of disloyalty and treason.
Would Norris understand if he spelled it out? He needs guilty men, so he has found men who are guilty. Though, perhaps not guilty as charged.
Treading for air in a sea of half-truths, Master Secretary Cromwell carefully navigates the waters. As Anne grips the pearls around her neck and vows vengeance, Cromwell steadily prepares the case against her honor. While gents on the Court’s perimeter offer everything from witchcraft to previous marriages as reason for exile, Cromwell sets his sights on adultery. Anne’s cunning and sexual confidence were traits which helped her secure position as Queen, which made them obvious tools for her downfall. As recorded by history, Cromwell’s efforts were successful, resulting in the executions of innocent men, and the public beheading of Anne.
By chronicling the challenges that were presented to Cromwell by King Henry, the reader is quickly introduced to the Master Secretary’s loyalty, and his guarded character. Mantel’s Cromwell is shrewd, methodical and deliberate. Something as nondescript as the raising of an eyebrow is purposeful. But, as shared by this story, Cromwell was also a haunted man, which was an observation that I found to be refreshing. His childhood reared its head on more than one occasion, and he could not wash the blood of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey from his hands. While he gained power and riches, he knew that ultimately, the story would continue without him. With every success he secured for the King, Cromwell was keenly aware that he was only leading himself to an inevitable demise. To say that Mantel drew an exceptional portrait would be a gross understatement.
I also had great appreciation for Mantel’s portrayal of Henry VIII. He was precisely as I would have pictured him: spoiled, self-entitled, impatient and insolent. The word ‘ridiculous’ also comes to mind, but this description seems too simplistic to describe a tyrant of this significance. Regardless, the petulant Henry was perfectly drawn here, and it served the drama effectively. I was also pleased to see that Anne Boleyn was not overdone; while she was undeniably haughty and scheming, she was never offered up as melodramatic. By recognizing that Anne was as intelligent as she was manipulative, the reader is permitted a glimpse of the woman behind the name.
This audiobook was narrated by Simon Vance, who masterfully represented every character. Mr. Vance’s range offered many surprises, from a booming resonance to a demure whisper. Thanks to his skill, there was never any confusion regarding which character was holding the floor. Considering how many people were present in Henry VIII’s Court, this was no small accomplishment.
Overall, this novel was a beautifully written account of a tumultuous time in history. 4 stars for Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up The Bodies!