And in the final of my reviews of Man Booker longlisted novels, I turn to:
Hilary Mantel’s latest, Bring up the Bodies, needs little introduction. It is the second part of her life of Thomas Cromwell, following on from the 2009 winner of the Man Booker, Wolf Hall. To say that this novel was impatiently awaited by her many, many fans would be an understatement. They even did an hour long TV special, with an extended interview with Mantel, and they rarely do that on TV these days. Writers just aren’t interesting enough (apparently). It is here that I must admit to being a late convert to Mantel’s fiction. I read about a third of Wolf Hall in 2009 and found it unbearable. I couldn’t warm to Cromwell, to the decision to present everything in the first person present. In short, I found the novel a chore.
When it was announced last year that Wolf Hall would now have two sequels, and not just the one that Mantel had originally planned I thought, rather disingenuously, that she was simply cashing in on her success. (And why not? Novelists these days rarely enjoy great success, and offer suffer in penury.) When Bring up the Bodies was longlisted I thought, again rather disingenuously, the Booker judges are just bowing to popular demand that the novel be included. When, early on, she was announced by the bookies as the favourite to win, it did nothing to allay my doubts. That I decided I had to read all twelve books on the longlist, I left Mantel to the end. To read Bring up the Bodies would mean to read – and this time finish – a novel I didn’t enjoy in 2009. So reluctantly I picked up Wolf Hall and started to read…
Never have I made such a volte-face. Starting Wolf Hall again, it was like I was reading a different novel to the one I remembered. Mantel’s study of Thomas Cromwell is majestic in is power and reach, psychological true, and it brings sixteenth century Britain to living, breathing life.
Bring Up the Bodies continues the life story of Cromwell with Anne Boleyn and the beginning of the kings relationship with Jane Seymour, whom he will meet at Wolf Hall in 1536. The real strength of Mantel’s imagining is to make the familiar seem strange again, and to make us forget we know how this story is going to end. We all know Anne Boleyn is to be beheaded, but what Mantel does is show us how this came to be, to understand it in the context of its day.
No matter how majestic Bring up the Bodies is, I think full judgement on Mantel’s work cannot be truly made until she has finished the last volume in her series, which she plans to do with The Mirror and the Light. As a work in progress it is superlative.
Will it win the Booker?
If it does, I think it will be the first sequel to do so. It is good enough to. It is certainly deserving of a place on the shortlist. Whether it takes the top spot is going to be a tough call.