Historical Fiction Review: Bring Up The Bones by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up The Bones is a sequel to Wolf Hall and continues the story of Thomas Cromwell, adviser to Henry VIII. Henry is married to Anne Boleyn, but she only gives him a daughter. Then she has a miscarriage. Henry is getting desperate for a male heir and Jane Seymour is looking better every day. This being so, Cromwell gets the job of getting rid of Anne.

Cromwell has his own agenda. His mentor and father figure, Cardinal Wolsey, had been cast off years earlier, in Wolf Hall, and treated disrespectfully. Now Cromwell can take revenge under the guise of carrying out the king's wishes.

Mantel's writing has a beautiful texture. Curiously, then, I found my attention often wandered. What I wondered was how much of what she'd written was drawn from her research? Had Cromwell left lots of letters and diaries behind? Were the thoughts she attributed to him actually written by him somewhere? Then she had a scene describing how paper was rare and valuable, and therefore used and reused over again. So how could anything be left?

It helped when I came across this interview with Mantel on Radio Australia for the Perth Writers Festival. Hearing her brisk voice and the way she talked about things helped me see how her Cromwell might be a very practical man,  not a bad man, but a man who could do well in the times he lived in, and surrounded by people whose vision was not as far reaching as his. In one section, Cromwell considers the need for better roads together with the fact that parts of the population need more work, but he can't get the nobility to listen. Listening to the interview I began to see how Mantel's Cromwell might have evolved from her mind.

I have a couple of caveats with these books. One is that you need to know the history already in order to follow the story. The second is that the third person subjective narration isn't quite mastered. That's odd in a Booker prize winner. Reading Wolf Hall, I had to get used to 'he' usually referring to Cromwell even when the subject still appeared to be someone else, eg Henry. In Bring Up The Bones the 'he' sometimes gets followed with 'Cromwell', sometimes when it's already quite clear that it's Cromwell we're talking about. Why not just say 'Cromwell'? Well, presumably, just saying 'he' keeps the reader in that beautiful, warm-bath immersion that is the writing's great strength. On the other hand, I noticed in another present tense, third person subjective story I read, that use of the protagonist's name did not jar me out it. So why is 'Cromwell' different? Maybe someone with better editing skills than I have could answer. Maybe when I get around to reading it again I won't even notice a problem. (It happens.)