Narrated by Simon Vance
Length: 14 hours 45 minutes
In this second installment of the life of Thomas Cromwell, Mantel sharpens her focus to tell the tale of the fall of Anne Boleyn. It seems that King Henry is not happy with Anne after her failure to deliver him a robust and healthy son, and that the ginger-haired Elizabeth is not fit to take her place in the line of succession. When we last left Cromwell in Wolf Hall, he had done the impossible and secured the marriage of Anne and Henry to the discomfiture of half the nation and the Papal court. Now it’s up to Cromwell to catch Anne’s heel and bring her down, a task that he both disdains and relishes with equal fervor. With the aim of an expert marksman, Cromwell finds that many have been in the queen’s private chambers, and seeks them out one by one to turn on each other like dogs in a fight. But the queen won’t go quietly, and as she is slowly being thrust out of the life she wiggled her way into, she finds that Cromwell, the man who once served her so well, is now her most dire enemy—a man who will do her serious harm for the pleasure of the king. But the king isn’t lonely, no, not at all. He has his eye on a Howard. Katherine to be exact, and her puritanical lifestyle has captured his heart, and he aims to have all obstacles removed in his quest to make her the next Queen of England. Interspersed in this tale of deceit and malevolence, Mantel shines an even brighter light on Thomas Cromwell and seeks to understand the character of a man who can can and will turn on you like a cur but who can also remain the staunchest ally one could have. This is a tale that history has told a thousand times over, but with Mantel’s sharp eyes and even sharper wit, we get the entire tale of Anne’s fall from grace as seen through the eyes of the king’s most trusted man, Thomas Cromwell.
I was very excited to listen to this book after I had finished Wolf Hall, and though I knew that the narrator would be different, I quite enjoyed Simon Vance’s smooth and languorous voice bringing me the thoughts of Cromwell himself. Vance displays a great emotional range, but is never cruel in the guise of Cromwell, and completely avoids making him out to be a smarmy and flattering letch. I enjoyed his rendition of this tale so much that I had wonderings about hearing the first book read in his voice as well. While in Wolf Hall Cromwell seemed cutting and snide at times, here he seemed saddened and wizened by the years and how they reflected upon himself and his household.
This was a story that moved with speed and grace from a slow moving and leisurely pace to a free fall from thousands of feet. Anne was not, in fact, aware of her predicament, and attempted again and again to use her influence to gain advantage from the king. But the king turned a deaf ear and a blind eye towards her, seeing her as a great seducer of men and a woman who laughed among her male courtiers at his attempts at lovemaking. As Anne chortles away, she moves closer and closer to the gallows that Henry has standing erect for her and her lovers. What struck me most deeply was the way in which the queen was so eloquently ignorant of what was to befall her. She had to have known that the king was displeased, but her attempts at jocularity fell flat on top of her, and Cromwell assisted that maneuver brilliantly.
Cromwell in this tale plays the errant servant to Anne and the powerful envoy of the king. The woman he once placed so highly is now in the throes of the pit, and I can’t exactly say that he was sorry about it. Cromwell had never seen the jewel in Anne that the king had, only the conniving and cunning woman who strove to push Elizabeth to her grave and disinherit Mary. He never felt warmness towards her and never liked the fact that he was, as she more than once exclaimed, “her man”. It turns out Cromwell was not, in fact, her man, but the king’s, and as Anne begins to realize that, her graceful arc becomes a thing spinning out of control. She is morbid and moody, but this time her morbidity rests upon her own fate.
What Mantel has done in this book exceeds what I had expected. A side of Cromwell, the visionary, is exposed, and it’s at once beautiful and terrifying to look at. He’s not above torture and also not above grieving over it. He lacks no panache, yet struggles to make others see that he, too, is a man with power. And this power must be played out to whomever he is sent to serve next. He is full of rage but also full of compassion for those who suffer wrongfully, and even when Anne is at her lowest, he finds himself just as astonished yet slightly less moved than the English as a whole are over the death of the queen. His part in this matter is huge, but little credit goes to him, which is just how he wants things to be.
I loved this book for Mantel’s smooth writing, and for Vance’s expert delivery. I found ways to enliven my day by driving around pointlessly and listening to this in the car, or while doing the daily drudgery of housekeeping. It was tame and sincere while still managing to be salacious and divisive, and I’m so glad that I got the chance to hear this second act of the story. Hilary Mantel, I urge you to finish this tale for me. Tell me what happens next to my old buddy Cromwell. I’m all ears. Highly recommended.