It is a hard job being a sequel, but it is nearly an impossible task to be the second book of a trilogy. The first book gets all the benefit of the first blush of a love affair between the subject and the reader, and the third cashes in on the great drama of the climax. This is the fate, I’m afraid, of Hilary Mantel‘s excellent Bring Up the Bodies, which has the thankless job of following Wolf Hall, as original and as dazzling a novel as I have ever read. In Wolf Hall, Mantel took the well-known tale of Henry VIII‘s first divorce and second marriage and found a new way to tell it, by taking a little known figure in the saga, Thomas Cromwell, and making him not only a flesh-and-blood figure, but a very contemporary character. Cromwell is a shrewd behind-the-scenes advisor, a Bob Strauss or a Jim Baker, whom modern readers recognize, but a also a figure of modernity–a globalist, a pragmatist, a secularist, and a self-made man who has advanced on the basis of his knowledge of the new world of commerce and industry and arms past those had risen on, and are now encumbered by the rules and limits and strictures of the past. Mantel gives us a very human Henry, who is frustrated and unhappy, and a bold, clever Cromwell, who manages not only to give the king what he wants, but to set him on the path to the modern era. As if all this weren’t achievement enough, Mantel has devised a truly original narrative voice, one that is shrewd, and sinister, and that moves in and out of Cromwell’s head and back and forth in time with almost magical seamlessness.
Bring Up the Bodies cannot match this achievement; it cannot be original in the way Wolf Hall was. But to say that Bring Up the Bodies follows in Wolf Hall’s path without faltering or without diminishing is to give it all the credit in the world. In Bring Up the Bodies, the first lesson is to be careful what you wish for. Anne Boleyn, Henry’s new queen has longed for the death of her predecessor, Catherine of Aragon, thinking that it will solidify her status. Astonishingly, she is rendered more vulnerable, and the mechanics of her downfall make for great reading. But the great surprise in the book is the slow, subtle corruption of Cromwell, who finds himself seeking only as much justice as he can use, as he memorably puts it, and who finds himself weaving personal vengeance with his labors for the king. These changes in Cromwell elevate the entire book, and make it something deeper and more thought-provoking than the usual historical thriller.
And then there’s the writing! Here’s a nice morsel, plucked from Cromwell’s thoughts: “It is not easy to explain to a young man like Wriothesley why he values Wyatt. He wants to say, because, good fellows though you are, he is not like you or Richard Riche. He does not talk simply to hear his own voice, or pick arguments just to win them. He is not like George Boleyn; he does not write verses to six women in the hope of bundling one of them into a dark corner where he can slip his cock into her. He writes to warn and to chastise, and not to confess his need but to conceal it. He understands honour but does not boast of his own. He is perfectly equipped as a courtier, but he knows the small value of that. He has studied the world without despising it. He understands the world without rejecting it. He has no illusions but he has hopes. He does not sleepwalk through his life. His eyes are open, and his ears for sounds others miss.”
I could immerse myself in such passages, and swim in them all day. Mantel reportedly is working hard on part three. Bring up The Mirror and the Light!