Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall was the book of the 2009 literary calender year, a bestseller, critically acclaimed and winner of the Booker Prize to boot.
Now, comes the sequel (and the second volume in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy), Bring Up the Bodies, which follows the final and bloody downfall of Henry VIII's second wife, Anne Boleyn. The novel picks up in the year 1535. Henry has broken with Rome and created his own church for the sake of his desires, however, as we inevitably know, the tide is turning. Anne has failed to provide a male heir to the throne, and Henry's attention is now falling on the plain but enigmatic Jane Seymour, his current wife's lady-in-waiting. The King's Chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell, observes all of this with his shrewd, pragmatic and ruthless gaze and, combined Anne's plotting behind the scenes, the chess game of power, politics and titles is set to begin anew.
Of course those with a basic grasp of English history know how all of this will pan out. But, as Margaret Atwood noted in her review, that doesn't really matter: 'We read historical fiction for the same reason we keep watching Hamlet: it's not what, it's how.'
And what a how indeed - a how full of bloody theatre, pageantry, sexual power-play, rich detail and slow-winding tension. It is this eye for detail and world-creation that has won Mantel so many readers thus far. As James Wood observed in the New Yorker, historical fiction truly lives when fact is considered 'magic rather than... science'. Mantel in turn 'knows that what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one' - her novels are not concerned so much documentary, but with human artistry and texture.
Bring Up the Bodies also received a rave review from Geraldine Brooks in The Age over the weekend.
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