Harper Collins/Associated Press
Bring Up the Bodies
A worthy sequel to the Man Booker Prize–winning WolfHall, this book sparkles on every level. Its prose is at once lyrical and tightly clever; its large cast of characters is acutely observed; and its well-known story is vivified and humanized. Mantel originally intended to present Thomas Cromwell’s role in the reign of Henry VIII over the course of two books, but then discovered that she and readers both would need more than the turn of a page to recover from the swift downfall and beheading of sharp-witted and sharp-boned Anne Boleyn, so this segment, more closely focused and intense than Wolf Hall, constitutes its own volume, the second of what will now be a trilogy. Here, as in the previous volume, Mantel’s unflagging Cromwell is wonderfully attractive despite his ruthlessness. Self-made and well educated, though low-born and roughly raised; sensitive and self-aware, though almost unhesitatingly brutal; quintessentially English but familiar with France, Italy, and the Netherlands, this Cromwell is omnicompetent. As Mantel describes him in Wolf Hall: he “can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” His grief over the deaths of his wife and daughters and his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, serves both to soften and to steel him, for as he says, “You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.” He labors to improve England by codifying law and assisting the poor, but as he pleases the king, he tirelessly machinates to take his own revenge and further his own ambition. His honesty with himself regarding his motives makes him more admirable than Henry, whom Mantel presents as straining to justify his self-interest with religion and duty. Mantel writes in the third person, although the point of view is entirely Cromwell’s—a device that is initially disconcerting, but effectively so, since it allows the reader at once to see through Cromwell’s eyes and to observe him. A brilliant study of character, this sequel expands Mantel’s rich portrait of 16th-century society, deftly revealing the ramifications of birth, alliance, and personality at a time when being on the wrong side in a political argument meant death.
Together with the best-selling The Secret River and The Lieutenant, Grenville’s latest novel forms a trilogy that grapples with the inevitable conflict between the English settlers of Australia and the Aborigines. In this case, the perspective is not that of a newcomer but of a girl born in New South Wales. For her freed-former-convict father, this new land has been ironically both banishment and fresh start, but her generation is, at least seemingly, more straightforward. She knows no other place as home. “We wasn’t new anything. We was ourselves,” she says. Her father’s actions, however, form a terrible, hidden history that will pain and thwart and eventually spur this spirited, intensely observant, and self-aware heroine. That history was the focus of The Secret River, and in that book, Grenville, winner of the Orange, Commonwealth, and Christina Stead prizes, creates a true tragedy, in which the character’s desperate deed seems all but unavoidable. She renders the trap of the situation with such clear-eyed immediacy that the reader feels sympathy for the man, as well as horror for his act. A generation later, however, such immediacy is long gone, and with it any hope of understanding. Although Grenville muddies black and white (literally and figuratively) in Sarah Thornhill, ultimately, there is no question of what is right and what is wrong here, and the novel’s motivating idea is that the ugly truth must be incorporated into history. This makes for a story that’s laudable, even if somewhat less wrenching than that of The Secret River, but Grenville compensates with her exquisite and vibrant depiction of the experiences and feelings of her illiterate but nevertheless poetic narrator as she matures in her understanding of herself and her country.