I never watched The Hangover: Part II. I loved the original movie deeply, but was told by multiple sources that the second was a trudging, shot-for-shot remake of its predecessor, and what had been so charming and fresh–even in the tired genre of drunk buddy films–lost its appeal with repetition. So with that in mind, let me be the first to ever say: The closest I’ve come to watching The Hangover: Part II was reading Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.
Bodies was the 2012 Booker Prize winner and one of my most anticipated reads after loving, deeply, its 2009 Booker Prize winning predecessor, Wolf Hall. But throughout the novel, I consistently felt as if I’d seen this all before, and that what had been so engaging in the first go round–even in the tired genre of historical fiction–was less so with repetition.
This is not to say that Bring up the Bodies is not worth your time, or anywhere near as bad as the second Hangover was rumored to be. You will not find yourself disinterested in the novel, thought you might find yourself somewhat disappointed if you were expecting a work as extraordinary as Wolf Hall. The second book in the Cromwell trilogy (or Tudor cycle, or whatever you want to call it), Bodies covers the brief period after Anne Boleyn’s wedding to King Henry VIII, just before their divorce and her decapitation. Like Wolf Hall, the central character Thomas Cromwell—now the King’s Master Secretary—is cunning in the machinations of state, church and palace intrigue required to move events to their resolution (that resolution being: whatever the king wishes). Once again, Cromwell’s high placed enemies underestimate him because of his lack of position and rank, and they are beaten. Once again, you root unequivocally for Cromwell, despite his ruthlessness.
We’ve been here before, only this time the events don’t carry the same historical or emotional weight of those in Wolf Hall. Bodies lacks both the Cromwell origin story and the great debates over church, faith, and English translations of the Bible, which, while not entirely settled, are the cause of far fewer burnings of books and people in this novel. Most of Cromwell’s family, who served as a counterweight of tenderness to his guile in Wolf Hall, have passed away, though there are moments of him with his household and his son that are some of the best in the book. All that remains of the plot is King Henry’s change of heart and Cromwell’s vengeance on behalf of his early mentor, the late Cardinal Wolsey. The King has grown tired of his unpleasant bride and set his sights on another, plainer, woman in Jane Seymour. Cromwell finds the right ways to dissolve the union and blame the right people. Not only have we seen this kind of thing already happen; we also know it will happen again and again as Henry cycles through all six of his eventual wives. Let us hope the Hangover franchise has more wisdom than to do the same.
The novel might have been richer with more on Henry’s impending physical and mental decline, hinted at in mentions of his lame leg, his weight gain and the rapid shifts in his temper. Recent analysis has speculated that Henry suffered from rare genetic disorders that account for his late life changes, as well as his spouses’ challenges producing healthy male children. Mantel is within her rights to discourage the drawing of any conclusions, but it’s clear that something was happening to Henry, that it got worse with time, and that his instability presented a threat to his wives, his realm, and his Master Secretary. Bodies misses this opportunity for extraordinary menace.
But then, Bring up the Bodies is not a book of menace. Nor is it, like it’s predecessor, a novel of ideas. It is a novel of swift action. The differences between the two volumes are perhaps best illustrated in the titles. Wolf Hall gives us a location, a setting where the open jaws of danger loom. Bring Up the Bodies is a command, a stark directive implying both brutality and official business. The jaws are biting. And eating.
– Michael Moats