British author Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize for her novel Bring Up the Bodies. This is the second time she won this top award for British fiction. The first time was for Wolf Hall. Both novels are about Thomas Cromwell, the consigliere to Henry VIII. And they are both spellbinding.
Cromwell is typically presented as a Machiavellian villain who made it possible for Henry VIII to marry Anne Boleyn and then cynically framed her and engineered her execution. Mantel, though, in her thoroughly-researched imagining of those tumultuous times, presents him sympathetically. Her Cromwell is a man of high ideals who wants a more just society and will do what it takes to make those ideals reality. Specifically, he is a man of the Reformation, someone with a brilliant intellect who has memorized the Bible, possesses books by Luther that would earn him the death penalty, and who does what he can to rescue Protestants from the torture chambers of Sir Thomas More. But his effectiveness depends on how well he can work with the volatile, passionate egotist who is the King of England.
Mantel’s books capture the texture and nuances of a complicated time, and her characters are complex, historically-grounded, and utterly believable. And her handling of the religious issues of 16th century England is especially illuminating. King Henry breaks from the Pope and makes himself head of the English church because of his marital intrigues, but he retains the medieval Catholic dogmas, inquisitorial spirit, and hatred of the Lutheran Reformation. (Did you realize that it wasn’t the Catholics but King Henry after his break with Rome who had Tyndale burned at the stake for translating the Bible into English?)Anyway, if you like historical fiction written at the very highest, most sophisticated level, and if you enjoy tales of intrigue, you will love Hilary Mantel’s books. You need to read them in order, so start with Wolf Hall. Then you will want to read Bring Up the Bodies (which deserves another prize just for its title). She is reportedly working on another volume to round out the Cromwell trilogy, which may well earn her a third Booker prize.