What defeated me in Wolf Hall, the prequel to Bring Up the Bodies, was the writing style. It's called 'close third person' and it's a Mantel signature. She often refers to the narrator / protagonist as 'he', sometimes at the start of the sentence when you've been reading about another character. The result can be very confusing. Often you struggle to know who she is referring to. I guess it facilitates an awareness of an inner dialogue and closeness to the character's thoughts, but it's pretty hard work.
Bring Up the Bodies was my Book Club title and I was determined to get through it. It's impeccably researched and full of historical detail and is one of those historical novels that teaches you far more that you learned in O-level history at school. How Anne Boleyn was conspired against, and the terrible, sordid charges they brought against her of treason, by taking as lovers a host of probably innocent courtiers, including her own brother. 'Bring up the bodies' is the cry given at the Tower of London when those due to be hanged are brought up from their cells, Queen or no.
And it's a fascinating, conflicted portrait of the central character, Thomas Cromwell, Chief Minister for Henry VIII. The loss of his wife and two daughters to 'sweating sickness' is sensitively told. And he's portrayed as an early social reformer, attempting to introduce income tax so that the fat cats of the land fund work for the poor in building infrastructure. A man ahead of his time. But then again, it's he who leads the conspiracy against Anne Boleyn for the King's convenience, turning a blind eye to torture, taking testimony from witnesses he knows to be false.
There is stunning writing here. A beautiful passage on what happens to the dead now that purgatory is gone, after Henry has abolished the Catholic church. 'Imagine the silence now, in that place which is no-place, that anteroom to God where each hour is ten thousand years long. Once you imagined the souls held in a great net, a web spun by God, held safe till their release into his radiance. But if the net is cut and the web broken, do they spill into freezing space, each year falling further into silence, until there is no trace of them at all?'
So glad to have persevered, and to have finally seen why she is the only author to have won the Man Booker prize for consecutive novels, Wolf Hall and this one.