I fell down the rabbit hole of Hilary Mantel's novel Wolf Hall about a year ago. Here is what I wrote about it:
This is a novel of dark and glimmering brilliance, a novel of edges and shadows, a novel that revels in unabashed strangeness and in the pacing of a dream. It is elemental -- that is, it is fueled by a storytelling that fixates on the earth and fire, water and wind, of England -- and it lures the reader into the unsteady, seasick, rhythm of terror.
Yes, Wolf Hall is historical fiction -- it follows Thomas Cromwell in particular, with King Henry IV VIII, Anne Boleyn, and Thomas More weighing heavily on the pages. But that's a genre classification that does not seem to do justice to Mantel's Booker Prize-winning masterpiece; it implies that Mantel is only narrating history, perhaps with an imaginative leap or two in order to put a bit of flourish on a well-trod epoch. That is not what Mantel wrote. Wolf Hall is, if I may quote myself, a novel of "politics and prayer, bread and Body, wine and blood," a brilliantly constructed book that establishes Mantel as one of the most -- I'm not afraid to say -- most gifted living writers.
Since the journey into the rabbit hole, I have been looking forward to Mantel's follow-up novel, a continuation of Cromwell's strange story. And here it is: Bring Up the Bodies, published in a matter of days (and with a US cover that is so much less appealing than the British version, but ... everything: we can't have it, can we?). Like Wolf Hall, this new book unfolds in present-tense and situates itself on the knife-edge of class, the tilt between civilization and savagery.
James Wood simmers with Mantel and Bring Up the Bodies in The New Yorker. It appears to be the first lengthy reflection from a critic. I'm particularly interested in his take on how Mantel's imagination approaches matters of historical fact:
Where much historical fiction gets entangled in the simulation of historical authenticity, Mantel bypasses those knots of concoction, and proceeds as if authenticity were magic rather than a science. She knows that what gives fiction its vitality is not the accurate detail but the animate one, and that novelists are creators, not coroners, of the human case. In effect, she proceeds as if the past five hundred years were a relatively trivial interval in the annals of human motivation.