It’s unlike me, but I am reading a surfeit of popular books. If it’s by an ‘it’ author, has been published in the last 6 months, and perhaps has a sniff of an award nomination, I’m there in two taps of a kindle’s screen. It’s deliciously, dirtily populist and I’m revelling in it, summer holiday style. Sure, it removes some of the instrinsic academic showoff one-upmanship that reading as a hobby generally involves – the best recent example of which being a colleague reading de Sade in response to the Fifty Shades of Grey craze (don’t expect an upcoming post on that one.) But it opens up a whole new show-off world of talking about The Latest Thing (do expect my next post to be on The Casual Vacancy, that most underground of this summer’s releases.)
Hot off the press I sank my teeth into Bring Up The Bodies, Hilary Mantel’s bestselling Booker prize nominee and successor to Wolf Hall. Having just read and loved the teeming murmuring Tudor world of the the first novel, I had great expectations of Bring Up The Bodies which it gamely tried, and generally succeeded, living up to. Following Henry VIII’s advisor Thomas Cromwell in all his schemings and successes, Wolf Hall showed an inexorable rise to riches and power which is intoxicating to follow; as if you’re in Cromwell’s entourage being swept up in his rise just as his family are. Bring Up The Bodies has a decidedly different feel despite its continuation of the same story. By this time Cromwell is older, his household adult and blooming in their own lives off the back of Cromwell’s earlier success – and a darker mood takes over. He’s now a man with much to lose and the first inklings of it being possible for him to lose it. The underdog has succeeded but remains an outsider, and how long can the upward trajectory last in a violent world where many forces can flip against you?
Any readers of the first book have enough knowledge of Tudor history to be very aware of what the book’s main event will be. This certainty of a plot point makes for a very different novel, and Mantel plays an absolute blinder with this difficulty. There is a dark, rumbling unease which begins with the novel’s title and permeates. This novel portrays a less innocent time, for king and advisor – they know their power and will use it to the utmost to their will. But it’s lightly drawn – the suggestions of future problems are touched upon and specific examples not returned to – but they have softly taken roost in the mind of Cromwell and the reader, and even in the return to business as usual, both know they remain – and the reader knows Cromwell, master of perception, is all too aware of them too. It’s a masterclass in foreboding which mean when the inevitable happens it’s not a known event, but seen totally afresh, redolent with the stories of the (massive) host of characters who have all schemed their way around it with hints and signs.
By the time you finish it, you’re a good 1000 pages into this Tudor Marathon, which means it’s got about 600 characters and the world portrayed isn’t so fresh and unfamiliar – so Wolf Hall tips the scales as a better novel. But by this time, you’re committed to the series and have no choice – the third book will be downloaded by tens of thousands within a few hours of its release. Well, you have to keep on top of The Latest Thing, don’t you.