I come across Mantel only after she won her second Man Booker prize (the first being Wolf Hall, the first book of the same series). Usually an award doesn’t push me to read a book, since I believe each one of us reacts to a book differently, reading them with our past experiences. Will I like what you like? Perhaps not. Plus there was the fact that all media mentioned the award but none told me what the book was about!
When I read the back cover at Crosswords in Bangalore, I knew would read the series if only because it was set in Tudor times and had Cromwell in it. After all, as I realized during studying English literature in grad and post-grad, the most fascinating times of English history are the Tudors. That was the era when England was churning and building into a powerful empire from ‘that cold, icy island in north’ (Though you will find me cribbing most about the Victorians and their tiring nitpicking rules). The rulers, be it Henry VIII who remarried eight times, or his daughters Mary who killed off all newly turned protestants in the country or Queen Elizabeth—all of them are colourful, cruel and innovative characters. So I picked up both The Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (you have to start from the beginning) and licked them up in a couple of weeks.
The Wolf Hall in the three book series (what is it with the number three anyway?) charts the rise of Thomas Cromwell as a minister in Henry VIII’s rule. The Machiavellian character who is not of royal blood comes into court mostly because the Catholic king wants a new wife and only Cromwell the astute lawyer can change the rules of the game. Bring up the Bodies is about Cromwell rewriting laws again to get rid of the king’s second wife (as per his wish) as well as running the kingdom. That’s the story in short and if you are the kind who craves constant twist and turns to turn pages, you might not find that here.
The books are meant more for the ones who want to delve into those times of English history when England was waking up from medieval times and an overbearing corrupt Church and tentatively inching into a world created by laws and rules of commerce. The latter is represented very well in Cromwell’s character. In the masterful author’s hand, Cromwell is built inch by inch, dialogue by dialogue into a mammoth refreshing parallel to the royal citizenry of Henry’s court. It’s flavourful and delightful like a piece of sandesh (love the Bengali mithai!).
As her protagonist, her language delights too. Mantel uses present tense which makes her sentences shorter and sharper, adding a sense of immediacy in a plot that ambles along like the chuggish Thames. It’s a difficult feat (I tried it in a short story and failed epically with a wrathful email from my editor) but Mantel seems to be at ease with both her language and world. There are many ‘ahh’ sentences and well as ‘aha’ moments, even though you might know the story more or less.
For me, The Wolf Hall was mostly ‘aha’ because of Cromwell’s character and the way it rebuilds the modern world around him and his estate, dealing with all challenges in a practical manner. By the time of Bring Up the Bodies however, I was feeling a bit tired of the style. Cromwell was older and wiser (and boring!) and it seemed to be the same book again. But I still finished the second book for two reasons – Mantel’s marvellous hold on language and I wanted to see how they do away with the second wife which was kind of anti-climatic. I will gladly pick up the third one too and read it, for no other reason than to see how the series ends, but that’s me.
Mantel’s books are not easy for its readers, especially those who don’t know much about English history. She doesn’t handhold you through the history or the character’s past but rather arrogantly roughly pushes you straight into the alleys of early 16th century England, a world which comes with its own hangovers, allegiances and rules, much like any other fantasy world. There are a plethora of historical people who you have to know more, tree charts you have to consult, and incidents which you need to read up on Wikipedia to enjoy her books completely.
It’s much like homework given by the more intelligent teachers of your school where you just cannot copy-paste and be done with it. It’s hard work that needs patience and desire both. If you don’t have that, you might enjoy the language for a little while but then get impatient and give up, shelving the book with its bookmark intact. I guess Mantel does warn us by implying that she’s consciously trying to write ‘serious fiction’ instead of genre fiction which has whips, chains and boy wizards (Refering to the works of other top female authors in the UK, JK Rowling and EL James). She’s an intelligent, arrogant writer and demands an equally hardworking, patient and intelligent reader. That’s a lot to demand, even to someone like me who knows the world a bit. No wonder it appealed to the junta in the Booker committee. But if it will appeal to you as a reader, I am not too sure. And Mantel doesn’t seem to care really. She was recently in news because she compared England’s new Princess Kate Middleton to Anne in a speech and got egg on her face for the effort. Read more about that here, here and here. And lots of other places.