Review: Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel

“Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.”

That’s how school children remember the fate of King Henry VIII’s six wives between 1509 and 1547.  Bring up the Bodies is set in 1535-36, when Henry is married to his second wife, Anne Boleyn.  Thomas Cromwell has risen from humble birth to a place as the King’s Master Secretary.  He engineered Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn.  But Anne has been unable to deliver Henry a son and heir, and Henry turns on Anne:

Henry beckons her to approach.  Beckons her till her face is close to his own. His voice low and vehement: ‘Why not geld me while you are at it? That would suit you, would it not, madam?’

Faces open in shock. The Boleyns have the sense to draw Anne backwards, backwards and away, Mistress Shelton and Jane Rochford flapping and tut-tutting, the whole Howard, Boleyn clan closing around her. Jane Seymour, alone of the ladies, does not move. She stands and looks at Henry and the king’s eyes fly straight to her, a space opens around her and for a moment she stands in the vacancy, like a dancer left behind when the line moves on. (p. 175)

Cromwell knows what needs to be done, and that he must be the one to do it.  He carefully builds the case against Anne, whether that case be real or imagined.  Henry looks for loopholes in marriage law that would allow him to declare his marriage invalid.  But Cromwell finds a stronger case against Anne, one of adultery.  It’s never clear how true the allegations are; but just as Henry can twist marriage law, Cromwell can twist off-hand remarks and connect them into a pattern of escalating flirtation.  Before you know it several key people are arrested and locked up in the Tower of London to await their fate.

And yet Cromwell is such a likeable character.  He is assured and confident in his abilities and his standing at court, and he doesn’t hesitate to use his power.  He also knows he could use that power to have any woman he wants.  But at heart he is a family man, mourning his dead wife and children while nurturing his one remaining son and others he has mentored into adulthood.  And as things get tense at court, Cromwell knows that everything he has can be lost in an instant.  In Bring up the Bodies, he is successful.  History shows Cromwell died in 1540, after Henry’s disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleves.  And that will be the subject of Mantel’s last book in this trilogy, which can’t come soon enough for me.

Review: Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom

Dark Fire is the second in the Matthew Shardlake mystery series.  Shardlake, a lawyer, is capable enough to be occasionally retained by Thomas Cromwell, but his work also takes him to the darker, poorer areas of London.  In this book he’s juggling two such disparate cases.  First, he’s called in to defend Elizabeth Wentworth, a young woman accused of murdering her cousin Ralph by throwing him down a well.  Elizabeth refuses to speak to anyone, behavior which can only lead to a guilty verdict and death.  The court wants to deal with the case quickly — after all, there are hundreds more waiting.  But Cromwell needs Shardlake on another case, and uses his power to buy time for Elizabeth.

Cromwell’s case is by far the more interesting of the two, and concerns a mysterious substance capable of generating intense, destructive fire.  Known as Greek Fire or Dark Fire, the substance could be an important weapon in the King’s quest for power.  Cromwell is under pressure to stage a demonstration for King Henry VIII.  Dark Fire is known to be available in limited quantity, but its properties are not well understood, and the formula has been stolen.  Cromwell offers Jack Barak as an assistant to Shardlake, and the two set off to learn as much as they can about the origins of Dark Fire and the people currently controlling its use in London.  Shardlake finds himself moving in new, influential circles, as a guest at banquets hosted by the aristocratic Lady Honour.  Unlike most people, who see his hunchback as evidence of inferiority, Honour treats him with respect.  The banquets give Shardlake the opportunity to observe others who are influential in the case, including Cromwell’s rival, the Duke of Norfolk.

This being a murder mystery, it’s not too long before bodies start dropping right and left.  The plot is quite tangled, and it’s difficult to tell who’s on the side of good vs. evil.  Meanwhile, Shardlake continues to stay connected to Elizabeth’s case.  There are a few leads to follow up on, and some surprise developments. Thankfully progress is glacial, because he really has his hands full chasing down Dark Fire.  Along the way, C. J. Sansom provides the reader with rich detail that brings 16th-century London to life.  The summer heat exacerbated odors associated with human habitation; women held bouquets of posies close to their faces to mask the smell.  Sanitation techniques were primitive: at one point Lady Honour casually warned an attendant to “watch out for that turd,” and I realized this was probably a fairly common occurrence (ewww…!).  I also enjoyed the book’s historic context (summer of 1540 … Thomas Cromwell … anyone?), and the way everyday murder and mayhem touched the controversies of King Henry VIII’s court.

Review: A Dance to the Music of Time: Fourth Movement, by Anthony Powell

I approached the fourth movement of A Dance to the Music of Time with mixed emotions.  Having thoroughly enjoyed the first three volumes (rating each 4-5 stars), I was ready for more of the same.  But I was also a bit sad to be coming to the end of the series, knowing I would have to leave Nick Jenkins and many, many other interesting characters behind.  And things started off pretty well.  The first novella, Books do Furnish a Room, was set in the post-war period, with Nick entering his forties.  On a return visit to his university, he realizes:

The probability was that even without cosmic upheaval some kind of reshuffle has to take place halfway through life, a proposition borne out by the autobiographies arriving thick and fast — three or four at a time at regular intervals — for my review in one of the weeklies.  … their narrative supporting, on the whole, evidence already noticeably piling up, that friends, if required at all in the manner of the past, must largely be reassembled at about this milestone. The changeover might improve consistency, even quality, but certainly lost in intimacy; anyway that peculiar kind of intimacy that is consoling when you are young, though probably too vulnerable to withstand the ever increasing self-regard of later years.  (p. 3)

Reading these opening pages prompted reflection on the past decade of my life, having just left my forties this year.  I found I could relate to Nick in a different way than before.  Books do Furnish a Room brought new characters into the dance, along with familiar faces like Kenneth Widmerpool, who was introduced in the very first novella and has reappeared in unusual situations, usually when you would least expect it.

Unfortunately, Anthony Powell wrote two more novellas after Books do Furnish a Room.  I found them a slog.  Reading Temporary Kings and Hearing Secret Harmonies was a lot like watching a favorite television series that has gone past its prime.  The dance metaphor failed to work as well, mostly because so many important characters were lost in the war.  Powell brought in new characters Nick supposedly knew twenty years before, but being unknown to the reader these encounters lacked spark.  In addition, Powell’s writing was strongest in the earlier books, which covered the 1920s through 1940s.  In Hearing Secret Harmonies, published in 1975 and set in the 1960s, Powell comes across as a crotchety old man who couldn’t understand what those crazy hippie kids were up to.  The plot became outlandish, I lost interest, and the last book became a forced march to the finish.

However, when I step back and think about the twelve novellas in their entirety, this is an amazing body of work depicting a specific slice of England in an enormously readable and enjoyable way.

My reviews of the other books in A Dance to the Music of Time:

Review: Scottsboro, by Ellen Feldman

Inside the courtroom, rows of long windows ran along two walls. They were closed against the noise of the square, and the yellow shades were drawn, but midday light filtered through, cooking the air. An American flag and another for the state of Alabama hung limp on either side of the judge’s bench. … Instead of a jury box, two rows of chairs that swiveled and tipped to allow the jurors to make themselves comfortable were bolted to the floor. In front of each row, a brass pipe, also attached to the floor, served as a footrest. Spittoons stood at regular intervals, each surrounded by the familiar corona of hardened tobacco juice and saliva. (p. 208)

As the title implies, this novel is about the Scottsboro boys, a famous US civil rights case from the 1930s.  A group of black men — boys, really — were accused of raping two white women on a train.  The case was fraught with racism and questionable legal processes that denied the boys a fair trial.  Appeals continued for several years.  Author Ellen Feldman describes these events through Alice Whittier, a fictional news reporter, and Ruby Bates, one of the two white women.  She paints a vivid picture of Alabama in the 1930s: the climate, the people, and the extreme racism.

Readers unfamiliar with the case will enjoy Feldman’s ability to bring history to life.  As historical fiction, however, it doesn’t quite pass muster.  The best of this genre (or, at least, the ones I’ve most enjoyed) go beyond the basic facts and delve deep into the historic characters, embellishing where facts are scarce.  Scottsboro provides factual information comparable to Wikipedia’s article on the Scottsboro boys.  But Alice Whittier is one-dimensional; a vehicle to advance the plot and fill the time between trials.  Her storyline was like a superfluous wrapper around the heart of the book.  I wasn’t interested in her romantic relationships, or the skeletons in her family’s closet, because I knew them to be complete fiction.  This would have been a better book had Feldman used an actual journalist in the story.  Instead the result is something not quite history, and not quite historical fiction.

Review: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

Dr. Hanna Heath is an Australian book conservator, sought after for her unique ability to preserve antique books.  When this book opens in 1996, Hanna has been called in to work on the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 500-year-old Jewish text, and one of the oldest of its kind.   The Haggadah originated in Spain, and traveled through Italy and Germany before arriving in Bosnia.  Tucked into the ancient pages are evidence of its long journey:  tiny fragments of butterfly wing, a strand of hair, etc.  Intrigued, Hanna decides to analyze these fragments and bring the Haggadah’s history to life.

Hanna’s modern-day analysis is interspersed with chapters working backwards to the Haggadah’s origins.  While Hanna can only make inferences based on chemical analysis, author Geraldine Brooks imagines characters and situations that explain the butterfly wing, the hair fiber, and creation of the Haggadah itself.  She takes us to Nazi Germany, 16th-century Venice, and 15th-century Spain, painting a vivid portrait of Jewish persecution.  Each act of oppression and violence takes the Haggadah to a new country and ultimately to its final home.   While this is based in fact, it is largely fiction (Brooks’ Afterword clearly explains all of this).

Meanwhile in the present time, Hanna has a contentious and complicated relationship with her mother, and develops feelings for a Bosnian man involved in the Haggadah conservation.  The romance was insufficiently developed, and didn’t seem credible, and the denouement was a bit rushed.  Still, I enjoyed reading the interconnected history of something I knew very little about.

Review: My Ántonia, by Willa Cather

While the train flashed through never-ending miles of ripe wheat, by country towns and bright-flowered pastures and oak groves wilting in the sun, we sat in the observation car, where the woodwork was hot to the touch and red dust lay deep over everything.  The dust and heat, the burning wind, reminded us of many things. We were talking about what it is like to spend one’s childhood in little towns like these, buried in wheat and corn, under stimulating extremes of climate: burning summers when the world lies green and billowy beneath a brilliant sky, when one is fairly stifled in vegetation, in the colour and smell of strong weeds and heavy harvests; blustery winters with little snow, when the whole country is stripped bare and grey as sheet-iron. We agreed that no one who had not grown up in a little prairie town could know anything about it.  (from the Introduction to My Ántonia)

If you didn’t grow up in a little prairie town, the next best way to experience it is through Willa Cather’s writing.  Set in late 19th century Nebraska, My Ántonia is narrated by Jim Burden, a young man who comes of age on the prairie and forges a lifelong friendship with a slightly older Bohemian immigrant girl.  The novel moves at a leisurely pace, as life probably did in those days.  Farm life is filled with hard labor.  Town dwellers are considered of a higher class, with more social and educational opportunities.  Jim experiences both lifestyles, beginning on the farm as a young boy and moving to town when he reaches school age.  Ántonia also eventually comes to town, to work in service for a local family.  There’s a strong bond between the two, but one limited by age and class.

Cather paints a vivid portrait of frontier life.  It’s easy to visualize the landscape, to feel the dust on your arms and legs, and the cold wind blowing around the house on a winter night.  And as she describes the seasons, you feel like you’re right there:

There were none of the signs of spring for which I used to watch in Virginia, no budding woods or blooming gardens. There was only — spring itself; the throb of it, the light restlessness, the vital essence of it everywhere: in the sky, in the swift clouds, in the pale sunshine, and in the warm, high wind — rising suddenly, sinking suddenly, impulsive and playful like a big puppy that pawed you and then lay down to be petted. If I had been tossed down blindfold on that red prairie, I would have known that it was spring. (p. 120)

My Ántonia is deceptively simple.  Cather recounts the simple events of prairie life:  the harvest, tent dances, and town gossip.  Years pass and events unfold with few plot twists.  But as the novel moves toward its conclusion, there are moments of surprising depth and emotional impact which landed this book its 4-star rating.


Review: Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks

With its subtitle, “A Novel of the Plague,” I was initially worried this book would be a real downer.  Far from it.  Year of Wonders is the story of one village’s fight to survive and keep up a sense of community.  Told by Anna Frith, servant to the Rector Mompellion and his wife Elinor, the story takes place in 1665-66 as a late outbreak of bubonic plague takes hold of a Derbyshire village.  The Rector is young, enthusiastic, and committed to his flock.  When disease strikes and takes its first victim, Mompellion convinces the villagers to quarantine themselves as a form of protection.  No one may leave the town, and arrangements are made for food and other provisions to be delivered to a safe space.  But this well-intentioned action misses the mark, as increasing numbers of people are struck down, and people who once lived in harmony are filled with suspicion and fear.

But within this tragedy is a story of persistence and hope.  The Rector works tirelessly to bury the dead and give pastoral care to the bereaved.  Anna and Elinor, too, minister to the sick, especially the children.  Anna has experienced her own share of loss, and yet finds meaning in caring for others.  For a short time she tries to escape the reality of recurring death by taking an opiate, but stops when she realizes its addictive powers:

How do we tumble down a hill?  A foot placed incautiously on an unsteady rock or loosened turf, an ankle twisted or a knee buckled, and of a sudden we are gone, our body lost to our own control until we find ourselves sprawled in indignity at the bottom. So it seems apt indeed to speak of the Fall. For sin, too, must always start with but a single misstep, and suddenly we are hurtling toward some uncertain stopping point. All that is sure in the descent is that we will arrive sullied and bruised and unable to regain our former place without hard effort. (p. 134)

Much later, Anna questions the religious explanation for the Plague:

Why should this thing be either a test of faith sent by God, or the evil working of the Devil in the world? One of these beliefs we embraced, the other we scorned as superstition.  But perhaps each was false, equally.  Perhaps the Plague was neither of God nor the Devil, but simply a thing in Nature, as the stone on which we stub a toe. … For if we could be allowed to see the Plague as a thing in Nature merely, we did not have to trouble about some grand celestial design that had to be completed before the disease would abate.  We could simply work up on it as a farmer might toil to rid his field of unwanted tare, knowing that when we found the tools and the method and the resolve, we would free ourselves, no matter if we were a village full of sinners or a host of saints.  (p. 215)

Anna continues her ministry using herbal remedies learned from another member of her village, and just as the epidemic begins to fade she experiences one more staggering loss.  She faces this with the same strength that saw her through the Plague year, and rides off toward an uplifting, if somewhat implausible, future.