Though I prefer her historical fiction to her contemporary fiction, Mantel's writing is invariably excellent: sharply observed, psychologically acute, lightfootedly poetic and darkly witty. She clearly has a fascination with infamous men: both her Cromwell and her Robespierre are sympathetically portrayed, far more human and complex than the usual sinister cameos. I think what distinguishes her best work, for me, from her lesser work is that, in A Place of Greater Safety and in the second half of this book, I felt as if I were on the inside, as if I might have known the people involved. Wolf Hall was doubtless more authentic, certainly in its language and possibly in its history, than Greater Safety, but it was a much more distant reading experience; I felt frustrated rather than enthralled by its perfectly worked prose. The authenticity gave it a veneer of dust that, in spite of the present tense employed throughout, separated me from the immediacy of the characters' actions and thoughts and feelings.
I don't know what happened in Bring Up the Bodies to change that feeling - maybe it was just the story itself that was more obviously compelling (the climax being death rather than merely exile and annulment) than Wolf Hall, or maybe Mantel relaxed more into the telling - but either way I found myself speeding through it, inhabiting Cromwell's cold-eyed, calculating (but also at times compassionate/haunted/wryly amused) mind, breathing the same stale air as the novel's characters.
I also love the way Mantel, who looks so inoffensively hamster-like in all her bookjacket pictures, never flinches - and sometimes even seems to linger with pleasure - on sex and violence and profanity. Bring Up the Bodies, for all its Booker-winning, BBC-adapted respectability, is full of 'splayed cunts' and 'wet quims' and hints of dark perversion. I think my favorite line of all was Lady Rochford's description of her womanizing husband George Boleyn: 'No man as godly as George, the only fault he finds with God is that he made folk with too few orifices. If George could meet a woman with a quinny under her armpit, he would call out "Glory be" and set her up in a house and visit her every day, until the novelty wore off.'
Now that's what I call characterization!