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A Magazine for Sheffield

Book Reviews: Bring Up The Bodies / Discordia

Hilary Mantel.
Fourth Estate.

Reviewer - Genevieve Carver.

This year's winner of one of the world's most prestigious literary awards, The Man Booker Prize, was Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies, the follow-up to her 2009 Booker-winning novel Wolf Hall. This makes her the first woman, the first British author and only the third person ever to have received the accolade twice, alongside South African J. M Coetzee and Australian Peter Carey. Bring Up The Bodies is also the first sequel to have ever been awarded the prize. It constitutes the second part of a historical trilogy chronicling the rise and fall of Thomas Cromwell, right-hand man to Henry VIII during some of the bloodiest and most politically turbulent years of his reign.

The book picks up where Wolf Hall left off. Henry's first wife, Katherine of Aragon, has been usurped by his second, the fierce and calculating Anne Boleyn, at the cost of severance from Rome and appropriation of the Church of England by the King. But by the end of Wolf Hall, Henry has already set his sights on the plain and seemingly innocent Jane Seymour, and it falls to Thomas Cromwell to engineer the workings of the Royal Court so as to allow Henry's wishes to come to fruition. Unlike its predecessor, Bring Up The Bodies follows just one narrative trajectory: the deliberate and painful destruction of Anne Boleyn.

It is, in Mantel's own words 'a more fully achieved book than Wolf Hall', and I have to agree. If you enjoyed Part One of the trilogy, you will not be disappointed, and if you didn't enjoy it, you are far more likely to enjoy this one. If you haven't read Wolf Hall, and are sceptical about a 650-page tome detailing 35 years of Tudor history in some depth, I don't blame you, and my advice is to go straight in at book two. Bring Up The Bodies shares with its predecessor the ability to marry historical accuracy with believable characters, and create dialogue and atmosphere that seem topical today without being anachronistic, but it is pacier, more packed with intrigue, and is 'only' 400 pages long.

Mantel's prose is subtle but unpretentious. Her Tudor court is a world in which everyone is constantly looking over their shoulder: no-one, including the reader, knows quite who or what to believe, creating a sense of tension that is heightened by a largely unlikeable, suspicious cast of characters. Anne Boleyn is a femme fatale, repeatedly heard to say "I will not go easily" and thereby vocalising her own hubris. Henry is like a child, with little regard that his every whim causes another political uproar, another national crisis, another war. But Cromwell is the most devious of all. Behind almost everything that happens he is lurking in the shadows, looming larger and more powerful as the story progresses. Mantel's prose is steeped in the imagery of death and gore, flesh and blood, but the book is not a violent one. The imagery builds the growing sense of unease until the final and only episode of actual violence: the beheading of Anne's supposed lovers, and of Anne herself.

Bring Up The Bodies beat five other short-listed books, including Will Self's hotly-tipped stream of consciousness Umbrella, and Indian poet Jeet Thayil's dream-like debut Narcopolis, set in Mumbai's Opium dens. The buzzword for this year's judging criteria was 're-readability', in contrast to last year's 'readability'. Although I enjoyed Thayil's lyricism, and have a soft spot for any book that, like Umbrella, harkens back to Joyce's Ulysses, Bring Up The Bodies undoubtedly achieves this. But it is also a popular book, having sold more copies than all the other entrants combined.

Is it surprising that a detailed account of the actions of a select group of the English upper classes during a nine-month period over 450 years ago has such wide appeal? Yes and no. No, because in this country, we are told this story from primary school onwards, and are already familiar with the characters. No also because medieval history appears to be enjoying a bit of a revival in popular culture at the moment, perhaps best exemplified by the success of HBO's medieval fantasy series Game of Thrones. However, the achievement of Mantel's novels hugely surpasses that of that chewed-up version of the European Middle Ages, regurgitated for the benefit of American audiences and given an extra injection of sex and gore, just to make sure they don't nod off. Why? Because Mantel's novels at least strive towards our best guess of that notoriously slippery and tricky thing called The Truth.

I am fundamentally a believer in history. I believe that there are lessons to be learned from history, and I believe that Bring Up The Bodies does a much better job of engaging the public with those lessons than the school syllabus, for one thing. When I was at school, Henry VIII was a figure of fun; a jolly, rotund man whose ruthless murders and abhorrent treatment of women were the stuff of comedy. Mantel dispels these attitudes, touching on serious issues without compromising the drama of the story or quality of the writing.


Laurie Penny & Molly Crabapple.
Random House.

Reviewer - Nathaneal Sansam.

When Hunter S. Thompson and Ralph Steadman first collaborated on the 1970 article The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was still more than a year away. In the article, they explore the grotesque American tradition that is the Kentucky Derby, providing social commentary while taking a number of illegal substances for good measure. This, we are told in Paul Mason's forward, was the impetus of Discordia.

Written by New Statesman journalist and blogger Laurie Penny with illustrations by artist Molly Crabapple, this is a book that embodies activist journalism at its most visceral and up to date. In Discordia, the pair travel to Greece with local journalist Yiannis Baboulias in the aftermath of a chaotic election cycle that left the government and troika firmly in place. Here they meet a number of people on the left of Greek politics, ranging from anarchists to journalists to immigrants beaten up by the far-right Golden Dawn Party. Through interviews, they try to piece together a picture of a neo-liberal wasteland and the fragmented resistance to it.

Discordia is the Latin name of Eris, the Greek god of chaos, and Discordia's symbol of the Golden Apple of Discord features alongside quotes and statistics between sections of the book. At 71 pages and 25,000 words, Discordia is a slender but sobering read. You could read it in one sitting, but you may come away feeling a little downbeat. Anyone familiar with Laurie Penny's writings will find Discordia has a similar mix of the political and the personal, and also the theme of young people cast adrift and trapped by their situation, but with as of yet no way of articulating a solution.

Discordia covers what mainstream media coverage doesn't. Speaking with anarchists and immigrants assaulted by the Greek police, Penny shows that journalist activism is still alive and well. While the book is clearly indebted to the Thompson-Steadman collaboration, the focus here is more on facts, interviews and impressions of a country coming apart, rather than the experience of drugs. As Penny wryly comments in the book, 'Thompson and Streadman never had to be young women trying to earn a living in the twenty-first century by showing their tits for pay.'

Discordia's main tension comes from the interplay between Penny's blunt writing style and the detailed and slightly exaggerated illustrations of Molly Crabapple. In the final notes section of the book, Crabapple says her intention behind this was to show that in a world of ubiquitous photo and video coverage, an illustration is still a relevant way to tell a serious, journalistic story. In this sense she succeeds, with the detailed impressions of Greek street graffiti and of the grotesquely Beetle-like Greek police perhaps a far truer depiction of the situation there than any footage uploaded to YouTube.

Crabapple's illustrations are often full of little details, like a number of poignant graffiti slogans with an underlying sense of anger and hopelessness. In particular, an illustration of a stencilled piece of graffiti showing a young girl with a suitcase they find dotted around Greece is interesting as it seems to represent the plight of a generation, of Penny's and Crabapple's generation as well as the generation of everyone that they meet.

The day I received a review copy of Discordia the news was full of images of the first general strike in Greece since the new centre-right government was elected. It's a fitting reminder that the crisis is far from over, or, as Laurie Penny put it rather more succinctly when disputing the main claim of Francis Fukuyama's famous essay The End of History, 'History does not end: it just changes pace.'

Laurie Penny
Molly Crabapple

Nathaneal Sansam


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