Fourth Estate £20

Bring Up the Bodies, By Hilary Mantel

The sequel to 'Wolf Hall' is a striking account of one of English history's most shocking episodes. But it can be hard to navigate such austere prose

Anne Boleyn's story is not an unfamiliar one, but it continues to tempt chroniclers because of its uncertain outline. Details, such as the idea that the queen had six fingers, were often added later by historians with an axe to grind or a patron to please. Many of the agents of the queen's downfall had, we must assume, good reason to destroy any evidence of their involvement. Mostly, what we know for certain is how terribly swiftly her fall occurred – perhaps between 20 April and 19 May 1536, when she was executed by a French swordsman who died with her.

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall was an interesting and wildly popular account of the first half of the life of Thomas Cromwell. He remains one of the most cryptic major figures in Henry VIII's rule, and historians differ about his role in Anne Boleyn's downfall. Did his one-time ally at court divide from him over a matter of policy? Or did he simply follow his master's instructions once it became apparent, from January 1536, that she, like her predecessor Katherine, would not give him a male heir?

Bring Up the Bodies is a ferocious rendering of the fall of Anne Boleyn, centred not on the queen but on the man implicated in her fall. It is a narrow piece of prestissimo vengeance, an exercise of aspects of the novelist's art in pursuit of one of the most shocking stories in English history.

Mantel, in these two volumes, has deliberately restricted her novelistic technique from her best books, such as Beyond Black and An Experiment in Love. She is a strong admirer of Ivy Compton-Burnett, that mistress of the barbed and formal exchange of dialogue, and sometimes the reader feels that her focus is nearly as austere in its omissions. It is rare, for instance, for Mantel to give the reader much sense of the setting of each scene – once or twice, it is only on the balance of probabilities that one realises that a scene is more likely to be taking place inside or outside. In a key scene such as the interrogation of Mark Smeaton, the only external objects – a door, a stool, a table – only come into being when a character explicitly indicates it or rests on it. Occasional objects are viewed with a terrible intensity: the world behind, almost never.

Mantel is one of those rare English novelists who seems quite untouched by the spell and technique of Dickens, as indicated by another of her scrupulous omissions. She has no obvious interest in the way that individuals gesture. When the youthful Duke of Richmond opens wide his hands in a gesture of innocence near the end, it is strikingly unusual. For the rest, characters indifferently shrug, raise their eyebrows, roll their eyes; they never engage in the kind of fresh and idiosyncratic gesture most novelists love.

The strongest scenes in the book are, appropriately, the scenes of interrogation near the end, when both interrogator and victim are obliged to maintain a pose of public candour; one of threat, the other of total sincerity. In both positions, there is no gain to be had out of idiosyncrasy, but only out of representative purity; the man in the right, the man embodying total innocence and/or repentance. These scenes suit Mantel's technique so well because she has, after all, very little interest in the completely private.

Perhaps there is no private to talk about in this period. When her characters stop negotiating over matters of public import, there is little space in the novel for them to escape to but their own thoughts, which more often than not are disquisitions on public matters, too. "I am not a man with whom you can have inconsequential conversations," Cromwell says; a claim which would be death to most novels. For the reader, there is another place to escape to: the terrible cruelty of the future, in which many descendants of the victim Wyatt will say to many descendants of the interrogator Cromwell: "I do not know my own mind, you know it."

The novel has flashes and sequences of great power through the austere limitations of its own technique and the range of its own interests. It is bold never to tell the reader what a room looks like, and only to say what clothes someone is wearing when it seems to mean something specific, such as Anne's yellow dress at Katherine's death. It is still bolder, I think, not to let the characters establish themselves through different ways of speaking or by characteristic and memorable gestures. Sometimes Mantel pays a certain price for this: though some members of the dramatis personae are vividly memorable, such as Wyatt, Lady Rochford and the fascinating Cromwell himself, others slide by.

The King was memorable before you picked the book up, and is memorable in exactly the same way afterwards: Mantel herself can't do anything with him. But Bring up the Bodies has a gripping story of tumbling fury and terror, and for the most part does it with honour and energy.

Philip Hensher's latest novel, 'Scenes From Early Life', is published by Fourth Estate.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Arts and Entertainment
Dapper Laughs found success through the video app Vine

comedy Erm...he seems to be back

Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)

tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Arts and Entertainment
Bruce Forsyth and Tess Daly flanking 'Strictly' winners Flavia Cacace and Louis Smith

tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all