Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

When Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize I read the reviews and added it to my ‘must read’ list.

Then, partly because I was daunted by the length, I carried it around unread for some time.

All that changed about two weeks ago when I was invited to review Bring Up The Bodies on this blog.

Since I couldn’t very well review the second part of a trilogy without having read the first, I duly bought Wolf Hall.  To my surprise and delight, I found absorbing from the outset. It is a timeless tale of power and influence.  Intrigue, passion and a compelling cast of characters make for an enjoyable read.

Essentially it describes the role played by Thomas Cromwell during the years when Henry VIII was setting aside his first wife Catherine of Aragon and in pursuit of Anne Boleyn who was to become his second queen. It is the story of the waning influence of the Roman Catholic church in England and difficult relations with Rome brought about largely by King Henry’s desire to be rid of his wife.

There are obstacles aplenty to be overcome as the King struggles with his conscience and embraces a new faith that more readily accommodates his marital requirements. Henry, of course, is driven at least partly by the pressing need to produce a son and heir to the throne and to protect the realm. Thomas Cromwell is the agent who methodically and ruthlessly clears all obstacles from the path allowing the King to proceed within the law.

As a fictional character, Mantel’s Cromwell has tremendous depth. There is much to dislike in a man who is so driven and ruthless in pursuit of a goal and yet we find ourselves drawn to him. For all his flaws, Cromwell is a family man with a sense of humour, a good companion and a sage adviser — in many ways the kind of man you might wish to have in your corner — all of which makes him surely one of the most fully realised fictional characters of our time.

Bring Up The Bodies finds Cromwell still centre stage as Mantel takes up the tale at a moment when Anne Boleyn is at the height of her powers. With Catherine locked away in a convent, her marriage to the King annulled, the path is cleared for Anne’s ascent to the throne.

The Dark Anne Boleyn

Whatever about Cromwell, Anne Boleyn is truly the  dark character in this novel — deceitful, manipulative and lacking in mercy — and yet, despite her failings, she wins some sympathy. Her desperation grows when she fails to produce the required heir to the throne and her power begins to fall away.

Any school child can recite the fateful order of Henry’s wives — “Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded Survived”  — so it does not come as any surprise that Anne’s power wanes when Jane Seymour catches the eye of the King.

We get some insight into Henry’s motivation and see him struggle with his conscience but we also see him disengage from Anne and, as the queen moves closer to her inevitable fate, Bring Up The Bodies becomes ever more frightening, culminating in a moment of palpable terror when Anne takes her final walk towards the  executioner —  a moment, so perfectly described by Mantel that the reader might be one of the assembled crowd.

Meanwhile, and all the while, Thomas Cromwell — the King’s advisor and the main character in both these novels — grows in power and influence, drawing ever closer to Henry VIII and amassing wealth in his own right along the way.  Thomas is ruthless, manipulative, power-driven but also efficient, organised and quick witted. He can be charming, he can be cruel, yet he is a family man and, as his father observed, the kind of person who would buy a drink for anyone.

Thomas, being nothing if not a forward planner, is well able to read the lie of the land when the influence of the Boleyns declines and the Seymours begins to rise. So, he smooths the way for the Seymours, positioning himself to benefit  just as he had done previously when he cleared for the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Bring Up The Bodies opens with Cromwell well-established and extremely powerful and influential, a position he still retains at the end of this novel but the reader is left with a sense of foreboding that there are dark clouds still on the distant horizon but drawing closer to Thomas Cromwell all the while.

Page turner

So, for me, Wolf Hall was a page turner. I read it in three sittings over a single weekend. Great job, Ms Mantel. Keep them coming!

An advance reader’s edition of  Bring Up The Bodies was provided free of charge by the publisher for the purpose of this review. 

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel is published by Fourth Estate, May 2012.

ISBN 978-0-00-731509-3. Stg£20.

The Day the World Ends by Ethan Coen

Who was it that said the proper study of mankind is man? Alexander Pope, you say? Ah yes, the one who also said “true wit is nature to advantage dress’d, what oft was thought but ne’er so well express’d”. And it’s likely that Mr Pope would be rather taken by this new collection of verse from Ethan Coen. Yes, THAT Ethan Coen whose name you recognise from Fargo, No Country for Old Men and True Grit.

The Day the World Ends is Coen’s third collection of poems. It’s the kind of book that I like to carry around with me, to have in an overnight bag when I am away from home. You can dip in and out and find in it verses to entertain, to amuse, and perhaps here and there to make you think.  There’s something honest and raw about a collection that ranges from downright silly albeit entertaining and funny limericks to more serious musings on the creative process, aging, and the meaning of life.

Yes, it’s sometimes naughty, sometimes crude – but The Day the World Ends is funny and honest, witty and engaging. It draws you in and it draws you back. There is an ordinary humanity about much of this collection that is touching, an ordinariness that is expressed with originality. Coen takes what Pope might describe as “what oft was thought” and articulates it in observations  that “were ne’er so well express’d”. He observes and describes feelings that will be familiar to many readers  as in “Night, then Day” where his theme is that sleepless watching of the rising dawn and musing on the meaning  of ‘the show’: ‘There is one though — I know this much’.

Then there is the simplicity of his response  “On Seeing Venice for the First Time” – ‘Boy, you think, Boy this is Venice’; his pleasure in language in “To The English Language”; his seeming homage to other writers as in the wonderfully earthy, Joycean “Paean” which celebrates the big-assed woman or “Farewell” which in theme and rhythm is reminiscent of Emily Dickinson.

There are musings on the creative process as in “A New Poem” and “The One that Got Away” – and while there are some poems, like ‘Getting Old’ that perhaps might have been better if they had got away — even the most off-the-cuff verses have enough originality and humour to keep the reader onside. An amusing aside “To the Printer” remarks on the waste of white space in the book. “Sheep” is just plain old-fashioned good fun — a daft idea given words and space and shared for the entertainment of the reader.

The theme of aging touched on in “Getting Old”  is picked up in several other pieces including “On Turning Fifty”, a piece of observational humour that will have many readers in the 50+ category laughing out loud and wanting to share this collection with their peers.

Running to 120 pages, this is a relatively short book but there are lots of poems in the collection and all in all there is an energy and creativity about The Day the World Ends that makes it an entertaining read. Even if you’re not a poetry lover, I’d be surprised if you don’t find something in this collection that appeals.

An advance review copy was provided by the publisher. I have not received any other remuneration for this review.

The Day the World Ends by Ethan Coen is published by Random House Broadway Paperbacks

ISBN: 978-0-307-95630-9 (0-307-95630-X)
Pub Date: April 3, 2012
Price: $16.00

Snowdrops by A D Miller

This week, I’ve been reading Snowdrops by AD Miller. Snowdrops is among the books shortlisted for the Man Booker prize for fiction. The list almost always provokes controversy and I can’t help being drawn in by the discussion with the result that I buy many more novels than might otherwise have caught my eye.

Miller was formerly the Moscow correspondent of The Economist. He has lived in Russia, a place I haven’t even visited, so I am far from qualified to comment on this book. But I was drawn to it by the prospect of intrigue and excitement having heard some discussion of it on radio. When I started to read,  I couldn’t initially get past disliking the narrator, Nicholas Platt, a somewhat sleazy British lawyer working in Moscow who naively becomes involved with the amoral Masha and her somewhat suspicious sister, Katya. The two women are stereotypes reminiscent of the Bond movies who successfully lure Platt into their dark scheme.

I’m still somewhat surprised that Snowdrops made it on to the Booker shortlist especially as to my mind much better novels were omitted this year.

That said, somewhere around chapter 13, Snowdrops switches into an exciting read as the plot thickens, the pace quickens, and for the next couple of chapters it becomes a page turner. From chapter 14 on, it’s a better book even though the Bond movie feel persists throughout. There is plenty of action but the characters lack depth and, with the possible exception of the elderly Tatiana Vladimirovna, are neither sympathetic nor likeable.