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Bring the Dead to Life: Mantel's Booker a Boon for Historical Fiction

A bouquet to the Man Booker committee for making the difficult right choice in awarding Hilary Mantel her second prize in four years. As the second part of a promised trilogy and a landmark in historical fiction, Bring Up the Bodies ventures into markedly different territory than the other four novels on the shortlist. But a good case can be made for Mantel as the finest Anglophone novelist writing today—not in spite of the genre she works in, but because of it.

Mantel has a gift for enlivening well-trodden ground so fully that formerly stodgy-seeming—or in this case unpleasant—historical figures become fully-fleshed and empathetic. Thomas Cromwell, the hero of Mantel’s two booksmight not at first sight seem a likely hero: master of hard-scrabble political realities; destroyer of the centuries-old English monastic system; adviser to Henry VIII—an unpredictable and powerful monarch for whom sex, religion and politics were inextricably intermingled; self-made commoner with a long memory for wrongs and a chilling readiness to make death the means to necessary ends.

While not palliating this dark side of her leading character, Mantel has drawn the picture of a whole man: loved by his family, trusted by the king who depended on him; far-sighted planner of his country’s future, yet, fatally, not able, in the last resort, to ensure his own. We know that, in the end, the aristocratic cabals that resent his power and influence will combine to bring him down. So, in his darker moments, does he. Mantel’s portrait gives us an infinitely subtle analysis of a difficult and abrasive character; the two volumes of the trilogy she has so far written explore, with arresting insight, some of the most crucial years in English history. 

We often hear complaints about historical fiction being superficial. No longer. I think of Mantel’s Cromwell ruthlessly but gently interrogating—think Darkness at Noon—the narcissistic musician Mark Smeaton; of Anne Boleyn’s sudden and terrifying collapse as she is brought to the Tower by Traitors’ Gate. This is fiction at its peak, coupled with an extraordinary emotional ability to reify the past in human terms. “To bring the dead to life,” Robert Graves once wrote in a memorable poem, “is no great magic.” In fact it is the hardest thing in the world; yet Hilary Mantel, who has done it better than any writer known to me, makes it look easy. 

Read Peter Green’s review of Bring Up the Bodies

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