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.

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