Monday 29 June 2020

THE MIRROR AND THE LIGHT by Hilary Mantel, reviewed by Celia Rees

"I doubt I'll read a better book this year, or any year."

Celia Rees is a leading writer for Young Adults with an international reputation. Her titles include Witch Child (shortlisted for the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize), Sorceress, (shortlisted for the Whitbread - now Costa - Children's Book Award), Pirates!, Sovay and Glass Town Wars. The chance discovery of an old family cookery book has now taken her writing in a new and different direction. In 2012, she began researching and writing her first novel for adults, Miss Graham's Cold War Cookbook, to be published by HarperCollins in July, 2020.
Twitter: @CeliaRees  instagram: @celiarees1

For me, Hilary Mantel is the consummate writers' writer. She has such great range from Beyond Black, through A Place of Greater Safety,  to the The Mirror and The Light, the final part of the Wolf Hall trilogyshe conducts daring experiments with style; her use of language is deft but precise and she effortlessly handles complex historical events and great casts of characters with consummate skill. There seems to be nothing she cannot do. In choosing to present real events and real people through the guise of fiction, she inevitably invites criticism from a certain historians, criticism she handles with panache and brio, as if to say, 'bring it on!' She lends courage and conviction to any writer of historical fiction. It is our right and our duty to shine a new light on what is known of the past, bring long dead time to life. 

Hilary Mantel
I studied Tudor history for 'A' level and at university. For me, Thomas Cromwell was a soulless bureaucrat, ruthless and machiavellian, responsible for the destruction of the monasteries and the death of Anne Boleyn. But worse than that, he was an uninteresting, shadowy, backroom figure, as colourless as his Holbein portrait, which might as well be in black and white. Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy changed my view of him instantly and forever. The unusual use of the third person present tense, allowing the reader to be simultaneously both inside and outside his consciousness, brought him roaring into life. We enter into him, thinking with his mind; seeing with his eyes The details are provided by Hilary Mantel's immaculate and meticulously detailed research which is reflected through the mirror of her imagination and ruthlessly and perfectly tailored to the tale. There are no 'info dumps' here. The known facts are amplified by what could have happened, what was possible, what was likely. 

Thomas Cromwell - Hans Holbein 

The novel is framed by two executions. The first of Anne Boleyn. Hilary Mantel takes the well known fact that Anne Boleyn was be-headed with a sword and makes it starkly graphic and very real by adding that sword was made fromToledo steel. Cromwell would know this, being the son of a blacksmith. In turn these two things, the death of Anne Boleyn and Cromwell's lowly origins, will be the cause of his downfall. The book abounds with these kinds of skillful interweavings, sometimes stretching between all three volumes. It is as carefully crafted and honed as sharp as the Toledo blade. 
Anne Boleyn
There is so much here. So much more I could say about The Mirror and The Light.  Mirrors and light flash throughout the novel. Speculum Justiciae, ora pro nobis – mirror of justice pray for us – is inscribed on the executioner's sword. This central exchange between Henry and Cromwell gives the book its title:

Your majesty is the only prince. The mirror and the light to other kings. 
Henry repeats the phrase, as if cherishing it: the mirror and the light.”

Henry is cast as a living specula principum, the model for all princes,when he is anything but and the image of the bloated and ageing King reflected back to him in the eyes of the the young Anne of Cleves is the moment of truth which causes her rejection and Cromwell's ultimate.demise.

It is is a long book, 882 pages, as dense and rich as chocolate ganache. It took me through the first weeks of the lockdown. I'm usually a fast reader but I found I could only read a bit at a time. To say I didn't want it to end would be an understatement. It is another testament to Hilary Mantel's skill that, although you knows what is going to happen, the end approaches with slow, inexorable heart-in-mouth dread. 

I doubt I'll read a better book this year, or any year. Thank you, Hilary Mantel.

The Mirror and the Light is published by Fourth Estate.

See also: A Place of Greater Safety reviewed by Jean Ure.


Susan Price said...

Thanks, Celia. I've just re-read Wolf Hall and am re-reading Bring Up the Bodies, to prepare for reading this. And, of course, am finding much that I missed on first reading (when I galloped through the books, enthralled.)

Am so looking forward to reading Mirror and the Light.

Penny Dolan said...

I read Bring Up The Bodies earlier in lockdown, having saved a discarded library copy until the Mirror & Light was published, and that was incredible enough. But the Mirror is something else altogether! Unusually for a fast reader,I can't read more than three or so pages at a time either. Partly that's because I can't bear the thought of what he ( and I alongside him) will be facing on the pages ahead and the other reason is (although perfectly clear to read)the absolute intensity of Mantel's writing and storytelling. Once all the shifting characters and complex court rivalries are addeed in, and the sense that the ruling families - or "class" - will eventually defeat low-born Cromwell, the Mirror and the Light is indeed a perfect novel for our time.
An excellent recommendation!

Rosemary Hayes said...

Thank you Celia for the excellent review. Like Susan, I plan to re-read Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies again before tackling TMATL. I listened to the Book at Bedtime adaptation on Radio 4. Anton Lesser's reading of it made it crystal clear who was speaking when, something which isn't always obvious in the other two, because of her writing style. But, as you say, a remarkable achievement and so intense. My husband's reading TMATL at the moment and is about a third of the way through so not sure when I'll get to it.

Celia Rees said...

So much to say about this novel. The class angle and it's sudden absolutely modern relevance without In any way being anachronistic or forced is particularly interesting. Also fascinated to know that others find it hard to read (but in a good way). Rosemary, Sue - you have a treat in store!

Ann Turnbull said...

Thanks for your review, Celia, which made me want to read this book immediately - and thanks also to those who suggested re-reading the other two first! Which is what I will do. Excellent advice.

Linda Newbery said...

I listened to the unabridged audio version, read by the excellent Ben Miles (who played Cromwell in the stage version), and this was my constant companion during the first weeks of lockdown. Ben Miles captures a staggering range of voices, accents and dialects, as well as the rhythms of the prose. This was the first time I've listened to an entire novel - I found it all captivating, and I'm going to read the book too.