There’s not much to say about this novel; it’s already won the Booker Prize, as did its predecessor, Wolf Hall. Both books (as well as a third, not yet published) are about Thomas Cromwell, King Henry the VIII‘s “fixer.”
Bring Up the Bodies (and I loved the context in which this phrase is finally dropped in the story) is specifically about the years 1535-6, and the beheading of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife.
As a Canadian, my relation to English history is more than a little deficient. What little I think I know I’ve probably learned from movies and from being forced to read the play A Man For All Seasons in high school. (Or maybe we had to sit through the 1966 movie version, which starred Paul Scofield, Orson Welles, Robert Shaw and John Hurt.) I think that Cromwell has a reputation as a pretty nasty customer. The play pits him against Sir Thomas More, the Chancellor of England who refused Henry’s demand to annul Henry’s first marriage, to Catharine (“Katharine” in Bring Up the Bodies).
I’m not sure how much the play is responsible for Cromwell’s reputation, of if that’s also the general consensus of historians. But Mantel’s version of Cromwell is fully-realized. He’s just about always the smartest person in the room, sometimes annoyingly so (basically, it’s the Denzel Washington role), but is self-aware enough to note that even he can sometimes be surprised. His motives are complex, as are his dealings with the various factions vying for his attention. He’s also got a dry sense of humour which is revealed in his inner monologue and the occasional well-deployed bon mot, which is usually delivered to seem politic on the surface but often cuts two ways.
Much is made in Mantel’s books of her hero’s lowly origins, as the son of a blacksmith. Other characters, rivals for the king’s affection and trust, are always reminding Cromwell that he doesn’t belong in King Henry’s court. His background is never far from Cromwell’s thoughts, either. In many ways, if not all, those origins have made him a survivor in a particularly vicious pool of piranhas.
Anyway. The upshot of Bring Up the Bodies and Wolf Hall is that you don’t have to be interested in the royals or in historical fiction to enjoy Mantel’s triumph. I’m a fan of neither (I’ve never seen an episode of The Tudors) and I ploughed through the second half of Bring Up the Bodies (it’s a 400+ page book) in practically one sitting. It’s not about what happens, but it’s a particularly fascinating take on how and why a queen of England could be beheaded.