Review: Bring Up the Bodies

I have just finished reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  I felt that I had to read this Booker Prize-winning novel by a writer who has won the Booker Prize for the last two years.  I’m glad I did, because now I can see what all the fuss was about.  In my opinion, the novel is very good, but it also has its faults: see below.

The setting is sixteenth century England during the reign of Henry VIII, and the time frame is from the onset of illness of Katherine, the ex-queen and Henry’s divorced wife, to the execution of Anne Boleyn, the king’s second wife.  The story is told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, Secretary to the king and the second most powerful influence in the kingdom.

What I liked about the novel was its (for me) faithful rendering of the culture and values of Tudor England.  The characters, though there are perhaps too many of them for one novel, are clearly drawn.  The prose is captivating, but sometimes a little difficult to follow.  And the story, itself, even if well-known, was difficult for me to set aside.

There are 762 reviews of Bring Up the Bodies on Amazon.com at the moment: 469 are five star and 26 are one star.  I thought it would be interesting to look at the one-star reviews and see to what extent I agree.

Here are excerpts from five of the one-star reviews:

  • “Non-specific pronoun use drove me batty… She begins lines with “He says….” He who? Why do I have to wonder who the speaker is?”
  • “If I had not been rather familiar with the Tudor history the author’s disjointed rambling would have lost me with the first ‘children falling out of the sky’ to the end.”
  • “Ms. Mantel’s offering is not completely factual and gives a very biased, gossipy, and amateurish impression of the people of the age.”
  • “She seems to be allergic to telling the reader who is speaking so you find yourself constantly going back through the pages to try and discover who is saying what.”
  • “Beautifully written, yes – try and follow the story! Yeesh! By the time the slew of adjectives are regurgitated (some call it prose) the story line (plot) is long forgotten. That’s okay at first but it occurs page after page after page and soon all one is reading is prose and about what?”

I have to admit that at first the use on the non-specific pronoun, ‘he’, confused me, as well.  But after about ten pages, I realized that ‘he’ almost invariably referred to Thomas Cromwell.

“Children falling out of the sky” occurs on the first page, and when I first read it, I wondered what the image was about.  But, by the bottom of the page, I realised that the ‘children’ were tamed hawks.  Still, I wondered why the author would begin a novel with a confusing statement.  An ambiguous statement – OK – but confusing?

Historical novels do not pretend to be ‘completely factual’, and it seems to me that it’s OK for an author to present a biased point of view, as long as the biased view ‘holds water’, which, in this case, in my opinion, it does.  It is gossipy: so what?  Amateurish?  I don’t think so.  I, too, have read a lot of Tudor history and I think Ms Mantel does an excellent job setting the reader down into the culture, values, and scenery of the sixteenth century.

What I found confusing was that Ms. Mantel would use different names for the same character: the ‘Duke of Norfolk’ could be ‘Thomas Howard’ on the next page.  I believe this is faithful to the customs of the 16th century: a man could be ‘Thomas’ to his friends, but ‘the Duke of Norfolk’ to strangers.  Still, with so many characters (68 are named in the Cast of Characters) it is difficult to recognize all of them in each instance.

The prose in Bring Up the Bodies borders, at times, on the poetic.  Take, for example this paragraph:

All summer has been like this, a riot of dismemberment, fur and feather flying; the beating off and whipping in of hounds, the coddling of tired horses, the nursing, by the gentlemen, of contusions, sprains and blisters.  And for a few days at least, the sun has shone on Henry.  Sometime before noon, clouds scudded in from the west and rain fell in big scented drops; but the sun re-emerged with scorching heat, and now the sky is so clear you can see into Heaven and spy on what the saints are doing.

In my opinion, Ms. Mantel sometimes gets carried away with her imaginative imagery, and risks losing some readers in doing so.  “Spy on what the saints are doing” is an example.  In a way this image is appropriate: the culture of the 16th century was fervent in its religious devotion and fear.  Moreover, the image reinforces the clarity of the sky.  But to the modern reader, the image is jolting: how can one look at the sky and spy on the saints, if, indeed, there are any saints?  If I had been clever enough to have this image spring to mind, I might have tempered it to say: “the sky is so clear one might think to see God’s halo.”

 In summary, I think that Bring Up the Bodies represents a landmark novel, and is worth the extra effort to read it with understanding.

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