Book Review: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

Book - The Mirror and the Light by Hilary MantelHilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall series is a triumph of historical enactment in book form. When The Mirror and the Light (the third and final book) was published, I was still recovering from post viral fatigue, and didn’t have the strength to hold a normal paperback, never mind this giant brick of a book, so I left it a few weeks before ordering a copy, and, as my strength returned, I was able to sink back into the sixteenth century as if I had never been away.  

The novel opens with the grim, efficient, beheading of Anne Boleyn, and rumour, suspicion and the threat of execution are an ever-present force, lurking beneath each page. Numerous dead characters return to haunt Cromwell, particularly those from his childhood, including his father and his arch enemy – the eel boy. There is something about the way that Hilary Mantel writes, the merging of thought, action, memory, that brings Cromwell to life. It is so easy to slip into thinking that what you are reading is completely real.

What stood out for me were the moments of crossover with modern life. Here, at the start of a rebellion, this passage reminded me of today’s obsession with fake news:

They call up, ‘Is it true the King is dead?’

He comes down the stair towards them. ‘Who says so?’

‘All the east believes it. He died at midsummer. A puppet lies in his bed and wears his crown.’

‘So who rules?’

‘Cromwell, sir. He means to pull down all the parish churches. He will melt the crucifixes for canon, to fire on the poor folks of England… There will be no bread next winter but made of pease flour and beans, and the commons shall be poisoned by it and lie in the fields like blown sheep, with no priest to confess them.’

‘Wipe your feet,’ he tells them. ‘I shall bring you to a dead king, and you may kneel and beg his pardon.’

This quote illustrates the exquisite sense of irony that we see in Mantel’s version of Cromwell, and you can’t help falling just a little bit in love with him, even as you see his greed begin grow:

Cromwell is laying his plans, they say, to steal our firewood, our chickens and our spoons… The man is like a weasel, who eats his own weight every day… He dances to baffle his prey then sucks out their brains.

Other passages indicate that infection, and the need for social distancing, are certainly nothing new. There are several mentions of plague…

It has been a dangerous summer. For fear of plague the queen keeps a reduced household. The king lives separate at Esher, also with small state. A messenger called Bolde, who goes daily between Rafe and the Cromwells, is taken with an unknown distemper and must be isolated till he improves or dies.

Somewhere between the death of one queen and the arrival of the next, I did begin to find the book a little bit exhausting. There is an incessant atmosphere of suspicion and rumour, fear and interrogation. I expect it felt rather like that at the time. You can see how easy it would have been to become entangled in the push and pull of religious reform, and it’s strange to hear about the dissolution of the monasteries, such a pivotal and traumatic event in the history of this country, from the perspective of the man who orchestrated it. The exhumation of Becket’s tomb is a vivid depiction of what would have taken place in numerous locations across the realm.

The large cast of characters can become confusing, especially as many of them are referred to by both their official title and Christian name, but my A-level history lessons soon came back to me, and I relished the opportunity to get to know these people once again. I’d forgotten just enough of the detail to create a certain level of suspense.

Cromwell’s demise is narrated with subtlety, so the reader experiences something of his shock, resignation and helplessness as the book reaches its conclusion. In the end, what seems to matter most, both to Cromwell and to those who turn against him, is the incredible audaciousness of a boy who started out with nothing and spent a lifetime climbing the social ladder, gaining wealth and influence through sheer hard work and determination: a rags-to-riches story on a monumental scale.

Buy The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel.

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