My review/reflection about Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” could be very long. The book is a brilliant, evocative, literate, and potent piece of writing—an intellectual masterpiece.
Reading “Bring Up The Bodies” fully engaged my head. But—and I already hear the howls of Mantel fans objecting—I regret to report that it did not capture my heart.
But let me start with what is so very right about “Bring Up The Bodies.”
The story of the two years 1535 and 1536 during which Anne Boleyn’s security as Henry VIII’s wife was slipping away is told from the perspective of Henry’s principle secretary Thomas Cromwell.
It amazes me how convincingly Mantel portrays the fractious and duplicitous life in and around the court as if we are seeing it through Cromwell’s eyes without writing a first-person narrative in Cromwell’s voice. Mantel fully inhabits the Cromwell persona and hence we as readers do as well. The public and historical assessment of Cromwell has varied over time vacillating between those who see him as a ruthless political operative and others who credit him with laying the groundwork for Britain as a modern state governed by law as opposed to the whimsy of sometimes capricious sovereigns. Mantel’s Cromwell is closer to the later perspective and though his harsh judgment and clever manipulation is on full display, we are drawn to him out of respect and, at times, even sympathy.
A second attribute of Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies” that leaves me awestruck is her capacity to write historical fiction with the intimacy and excitement of a first-class thriller. Before we pick up the book, we already know the history—what is going to happen to Anne and to a certain degree we know how it comes about. But Mantel, through assiduous historical research combined with an incredibly fertile imagination, enlivens those months in the midst of the sixteen-century so that we experience the conversations and arguments as if they were occurring in the next room and with a nervous excitement about what will happen next. No, we’re even closer than the next room—we are in the very same room as Cromwell, standing unseen just slightly behind him.
I could go on and on enumerating the strengths of “Bring Up The Bodies”—the richly poetic writing style, the fulsome depiction of the female characters (a considerable challenge given how little patriarchal historians have documented the lives of women), the brilliantly witty turns-of-phrase and ever-so-slight gestures that Mantel fashions that illumine massive canvasses of the interior lives of the individuals.
As much as I admire Mantel’s craft in the writing of “Bring Up The Bodies” and unreservedly recommend it for others to read, I can’t honestly say that it touched my heart.
The dialectic between craft and emotion in literature impacts all of us as readers and writers. I experience it in the case of my own writing.
From the many very moving testimonials that I have received from readers of my memoir “August Farewell”, I know that it seems to grab most people by the heart. This is the case even though I wrote it in a short six weeks with very little revision and no editorial assistance before it was published. It’s an authentic piece of writing from one with a broken heart but it is not necessarily really well written. On the other hand, my novel “Searching for Gilead” took me much longer and went through many revisions based on feedback from a few close friends whose judgment I highly respect and from a professional editor. It’s not a great piece of literature but I think, in all modesty, that it is quite a good piece of writing. Readers and reviewers seem to agree. They don’t however send me the kind of effusive messages that “August Farewell” engenders.
My point? Some books one really admires because they are written so exceptionally well and other books one really loves even though the craft may not be of as high quality. And that’s okay. It’s a big table. There’s room for all—with a place of honour reserved for those few books that grab both our head and our heart.
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For information on Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies”, see: http://amzn.to/X6okOj The Oct. 15, 2012 edition of “The New Yorker” magazine carries an illuminating article entitled “The Dead Are Real: The imagination of Hilary Mantel.”
For information on my memoir “August Farewell” and my novel “Searching for Gilead”, see my website at http://DavidGHallman.com on which there are YouTube video trailers of the two books, reviews, readers’ comments, and links to my blog and Goodreads.com page where I have posted reviews of other books that I’ve read recently.