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3 of the best summer 2012 novels

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2. “Bring Up the Bodies,” by Hilary Mantel

If anyone could have used a no-fault divorce law, it’s the wives of Henry VIII. The much-married monarch had a penchant of leaving a trail of bodies, rather than broken hearts, in his quest to produce a male heir.

In Bring Up the Bodies, the sequel to Hilary Mantel’s Man Booker Prize-winning “Wolf Hall,” Anne Boleyn sits triumphant on the throne she schemed so long to get. But the formerly shrewd political operative is unaware of the precariousness of her perch. Henry’s master secretary, Thomas Cromwell, watches the king’s moods far more closely than his wife, ensuring that what Henry wants, Henry gets. And what Henry wants now is Jane Seymour, a quiet, pale girl whose own relatives had previously regarded her as “as much use as a blancmange.”

The royal marriage, of course, has nothing to do with love and everything to do with political capital. Americans might wring our hands over our ever-more-unpleasant political season, but at least ours doesn’t come with a rack and a headsman’s block.

In Mantel’s treatment, Cromwell, usually portrayed as a scheming villain opposite the sainted Thomas More, is the ultimate pragmatist. (Truly holy people generally don’t torture quite as many heretics as More did.) Warm and genial in his personal life – he feeds up to 200 of London’s hungry a day – the blacksmith’s son has risen to power thanks to an agile mind able to spin out every potential “what if” from the tangle of Tudor politics and a willingness to rewrite history so that it will jibe with “the Book of Henry.”

However, Cromwell also has the ability to nurse a grudge, which his enemies are about to find out. “His father Walter used to say, ‘My boy Thomas, give him a dirty look and he’ll gouge your eye out. Trip him, and he’ll cut off your leg. But if you don’t cut across him, he’s a very gentleman. And he’ll stand anybody a drink.' ”

More and Cromwell’s mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, are already dead – casualties of the king’s last marriage. This leaves no one who is a match for Cromwell intellectually. Readers know exactly where the plot is heading, and Henry VIII’s love life has been so thoroughly picked over, it’s hard to imagine there being anything fresh left to say. But Mantel manages handily. “Bring Up the Bodies” is a worthy successor to “Wolf Hall.”

Mantel knows her territory so thoroughly, she writes as if she’s witnessing the events firsthand – as opposed to miring the plot in research, or writing as if the characters are just actors wearing fancy costumes and saying “prithee” a lot. In her telling, even the downfall of Anne Boleyn conceals surprises.

Henry is portrayed as an overindulged baby – literally falling asleep at the table when we first encounter him, while Anne is all spiky elbows and overconfidence. Mantel never addresses whether she’s guilty of the offenses she’s charged with (including incest), and the novel’s point of view is so closely tied to Cromwell that even the most outrageous acts come off as simply politics as usual. It’s very likely that, to the real Cromwell, they were.

There are signs that the demands of serving an increasingly fickle, unstable king are starting to consume him. His wife and daughters are dead and his son is grown, leaving fewer outlets for his gentler side. “In truth you cannot separate them, your public being and your private self.… You can insist on separation, if you must: go to your cabinet and say, ‘Leave me alone to read.’ But outside the room, you can hear breathing and scuffling, as a seething discontent builds up, a rumble of expectation: he is a public man, he belongs to us, when will he come forth? You cannot blank it out, the shuffle of the feet of the body politic.”

“Bringing Up the Bodies” leaves Cromwell a baron, but one with a list of tasks that include “somehow to reconcile the king and Lady Mary, to save Henry from killing his own daughter; and before that, to stop Mary’s friends from killing him. He has helped them to their new world, the world without Anne Boleyn, and now they will think they can do without Cromwell too.”

The novel ends with Cromwell alone, writing on the back of one of Wolsey’s old papers, musing that when he dies, which he knows could be soon, “I will leave behind me a mountain of paper, and those who come after me … they will turn the page over, and write on me.”

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