I've read only one of the New York Times’ Best Books of 2012: Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. The Times again neglected to check with me, but I have to say I agree with this pick. It makes the timeworn story of Henry VIII and his unfortunate wives somehow new again. Even better, it makes the saga real and comprehensible. Well-researched, well-written historical fiction is the lazy man’s way of learning history, and so it is the way I have chosen.
Mantel continues the story she started in Wolf Hall, studying Henry’s clash with Rome and his fruitless quest for a male heir through the eyes of his main adviser, Thomas Cromwell. The difference here is that Mantel makes Cromwell the protagonist. Yes, he’s a Machiavellian opportunist of the highest order, but he’s also a philanthropist and a loving father, and he’s haunted by a violent and tragic past. Cromwell takes Henry’s mercurial and often juvenile impulses and forges them into policy. Mantel blesses Cromwell with a dry wit and eye for nuance that he may or may not have had. Her dialog is one of the best things about the books: Clever, subtle and always illuminating the character of the speaker.
Both books have earned the prestigious Man Booker Prize, which sometimes augurs pretentious tedium. But in this case the prizes seem well deserved. They’re not perfect: Mantel has an annoying habit of always using the subjective pronoun “he” instead of Cromwell’s name. So in an extended scene or conversation, it sometimes takes a couple of passes to grasp who she’s talking about. The problem is less noticeable in the second book, but I have no idea why she seems so wedded to this particular conceit.
I compare these two books with my other main source on Henry VIII: HBO’s salacious miniseries The Tudors. There, it was all about the lust, impossibly good-looking people romping in the boudoir, a kind of London 90210. Entertaining enough, but hardly history. If that show formed your view of Henry VIII, you owe to yourself to read Mantel’s books.
Anybody read any of the other books on the Times list? I’d love to hear your recommendations.