Thursday, January 17, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

With the follow-up to her award winning Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s second volume about Thomas Cromwell focuses on the months surrounding the downfall of Anne Boleyn.  As much as I enjoyed Wolf Hall, I (along with many others based on reviews I saw) often struggled with the author’s abundant use of the pronoun “he” and exactly who was being referred to at times.  I’ll get back to this in a minute.

I thought Bring up the Bodies was in many ways better than Wolf Hall.  Again told in first person by Cromwell, the reader is given a glimpse into the way his mind works as he realizes what must be done and then figures out a way to do it.  Snippets of conversations are put away in the files of his brain for future use.  People are led to say what he wants them to say, usually without realizing the path they have stepped onto until it’s too late to turn back.  Sometimes we see a sliver of a conscience as he goes about drawing the participants deeper and deeper into his web, but by the end, he reveals that those brought down with the queen were chosen for a reason.

Mantel is a gifted writer and her way with words is magical.  One of my favorite passages is Cromwell’s description of Anne Boleyn:

Anne Boleyn, is now thirty-four years old, a dark woman with a refinement that makes mere prettiness seem redundant.  Once sinuous, she has become angular.  She retains her dark glitter, now rubbed a little, flaking in places.  Her prominent dark eyes she uses to good effect and in this fashion:  she glances at a man’s face, then her regard flits away, as if unconcerned, indifferent.  There is a pause:  as it might be, a breath.  Then slowly, as if compelled, she turns her gaze back to him.  Her eyes rest on his face.

Although the book only covers about a nine month period of time, the 400 pages go by quickly.  I have always seen Cromwell as kind of a shady, shadowy character, but Mantel manages to bring him into the light as a fascinating person in his own right.  He’s not always very likable - but being likable isn't a requirement for being interesting .  I’m looking forward to the final volume.

Now, back that to that pesky pronoun  – and my one really big problem with this book.  It seems that Mantel took the criticism over her confusing use of “he” to heart and tried to make it less confusing.  On that point she succeeded.  But the manner in which she choose to do it was annoying and insulting as she took a page out of the Philippa Gregory handbook and “dumbed it down” for the masses.  “He” became “he, Cromwell" (or some version of it) and for the first 50 pages or so the reference to Cromwell in that way was made on almost every single page and often more than once.  In one paragraph, it happens three times.  Now I have admitted that I struggled in Wolf Hall to keep the references straight and sometimes had to read a passage more than once (and some even more than twice) in order to work it out.  But I would rather work  a little bit to figure it out than have the author treat me like I’m stupid and spoon feed it to me.  It annoyed me enough that I almost quit reading it (but I’m glad that I didn’t) so I’m knocking off a whole star for it (and I almost went more).  Which is really a shame because otherwise, the story is brilliant.

In case the FTC asks:  Review copy from the publisher


Kimberlee said...

I will admit that pronoun peskiness can be quite annoying at times, but still a fabulous read. Great review!!


Melissa @ Confessions of an Avid Reader said...

I loved both this book and Wolf Hall, and wasn't bothered by Mantel's use of 'he' in the latter. The use of 'he, Cromwell' early in this book did drive me a bit crazy since I knew who he referred to and didn't need to be told. I guess it was Mantel's way of addressing her critics the first time around.

nrlymrtl said...

Great review. I just got this book in the mail last week. I loved Wolf Hall because Mantel didn't rely on her readers to be in love with the main character (Cromwell). Like you said, likeable is less important than interesting.