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
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...