Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Bring up the books

How does she do it? How does Hilary Mantel take a tired old piece of history that everyone in the Anglo-Saxon world knows - the story of the terrible King Henry VIII with his many wives - and transform it into a thrilling literary page-turner?

And not just once. She did it with Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2009 and seduced millions of readers all over the world. She does it again with the sequel, Bring up the Bodies, which deals with Anne Boleyn's fall from glory and Thomas Cromwell's irresistible rise and rise. And I'm willing to bet she'll do it again with the third novel in the trilogy - for which I, for one, can hardly wait.

Which brings me to the next question: How did Hilary Mantel turn me into an avid reader of historical fiction? Into someone who can't wait for a sequel? Because, just for the record, I've never been interested in historical fiction and I don't do sequels.

Alas, I can't answer any of my own questions. All I can say with certainty is that Bring up the Bodies enchants the reader from its striking first sentence ('His children are falling from the sky') to the very last few phrases: 'There are no endings. If you think so you are deceived as to their nature. They are all beginnings. Here is one.'

What an ending! Or should I say beginning?

More questions. How does Mantel transform the infamous Cromwell into such a likeable character? And she does this, astonishingly, without hiding his greed or his hypocrisy, his cruelty or his callousness from the reader. She just somehow polishes his image, places him in context, makes the reader understand his mind. Mantel even manages to turn King Henry VIII into, well, not exactly an admirable character, but not completely despicable either. She shows him to us as a product of a specific time and a particular place, like Thomas Cromwell, so that his obsession with having a male heir to secure the safety of his realm doesn't seem quite as selfishly stupid as we thought.

Mantel brings her marvelous eye for detail to the many minor characters too. If this was a movie (as it will probably soon be), it would have a huge cast of unforgettable characters. Though none as unforgettable as Cromwell, for whose role I already have a certain broody dark-eyed British actor in mind. I wonder if you can guess who?

Something else. I read most books in paperback versions - for practical and economic reasons - but with Bring up the Bodies I was too impatient to wait for the paperback. I read Fourth Estate's beautiful hardback version with the gold-leaf cover and Anne Boleyn's 'little neck' on the endpapers. Which of course just added to the pleasure of the experience. But I have to ask myself: How did Mantel manage to make me so impatient?

I'm beginning to suspect that Ms Mantel might have some magical powers. But please don't repeat this. As you know, poor Anne Boleyn was also suspected of witchcraft, and look what happened to her. Fact is, I want this admired author to write the sequel, as soon as possible, and I really don't care if she uses sorcery or black magic to do this.

As long as she keeps writing, so we can keep reading.

Bring up more books, Hilary Mantel!  

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