"Bring Up the Bodies," by Hilary Mantel; John Macrae/Henry Holt (432 pages, $28).
Incapable of distinguishing forest from tree. Stuffed with facts leaving us hungry for characters. Dusty. Musty. Boring.
All of these judgments apply to most historical fiction.
But none of them apply to Hilary Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies," a riveting account of how Thomas Cromwell brought down Anne Boleyn, just three short years after he had played an instrumental role in crowning her as Henry VIII's queen.
Second in Mantel's planned trilogy on Cromwell's life, "Bodies" has managed what I'd thought impossible: Proved itself a worthy sequel to "Wolf Hall," Mantel's chronicle of Cromwell's rise, and justified winner of the 2009 Man Booker prize. In trying to fathom how Mantel succeeds when so many historical novelists fail, it's worth remembering that before she became a writer, Mantel trained to be one of the many things that Cromwell was: a lawyer.
Consider the following two quotes.
The first is from "Wolf Hall," as Cromwell works into the night, drafting one of the many parliamentary bills through which he reshaped England:
"When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them."
Here's Cromwell in "Bodies," explaining to one of his henchmen how one must sift the evidence that will cost Anne both the crown and her head:
"We are not priests ... we are lawyers. We want the truth little by little and only those parts of it we can use."
Both passages reflect Cromwell's — and Mantel's — focus on shaping the raw stuff of life into compelling drama. Truth in "Bodies" isn't told. It's shown, through a judiciously selected cast of witnesses and artfully staged scenes, each quickly sketched and propelled forward through crackling dialogue.
Much of the dialogue in "Bodies" has the feel of masterfully crafted depositions or a first-rate police procedural, as Cromwell gently questions Anne's ladies-in-waiting — before cranking the heat while interrogating Anne's suspected lovers. But even as "Bodies" narrows its focus on the hunted Anne and hurtles toward its conclusion, part of Mantel — and her marvelous, many-sided Cromwell — refuses to be reduced to another episode of "Law & Order."
Some people like the world "squared up and precise," while others "allow some drift at the margins. He is both these kinds of person," muses Cromwell in "Wolf Hall." "A statute is written to entrap meaning, a poem to escape it," Cromwell reflects in "Bodies."
Mantel's two volumes move from good to truly great by passing through this other Cromwell, who resists the centripetal force of Henry's will — and the relentless, remorseless narrative Cromwell sets in motion to serve it.
This more private Cromwell is reflective. Poetic. Shakespearean, in a novel with repeated references to playacting, costuming and disguises — together with echoes of the Bard's great histories as well as "Titus Andronicus," "Othello," "King Lear" and, most improbably of all, "Twelfth Night."
This Cromwell, keeping his own counsel even as he does Henry's bidding, gives us magnificent soliloquies. On his dead wife and vulnerable son. His colorful past and his decaying body. On the end of feudalism and the decline of honor. On the modern England he hopes to birth — and his growing fear that the capricious Henry will turn on him before it can be born.
Much like Shakespeare's great protagonists, this Cromwell slips free of the rich but lightly worn historical garb in which Mantel clothes him.
This Cromwell is something more: A nakedly modern man, beset by recognizable doubts and fears that shed greater light on his pivotal historical moment — while also illuminating our own.
Mike Fischer is a Milwaukee writer and lawyer.