It’s a really strange time and we are all processing #SocialDistancing differently. Friends and colleagues will have noticed my increased presence on Twitter. I am mindlessly checking my email many, many times an hour and perpetuating my underlying anxieties. As a result, I have set myself some digital check out time every day. Sometimes I’m going to spend that time attacking my To Be Read pile. This is a (possibly short) chronicle of what I finish or abandon. Wherever I can, these reviews will be written immediately after finishing the book. These are not measured reflections. They are gut reactions.
Hilary Mantel. The Mirror & the Light. London: 4th Estate. 2020.
There are spoilers in this blog if you don’t have a rough grasp of the history of Thomas Cromwell, who was a Tudor politician that served Henry VIII. You have been advised.
Well, damn. I wrote a post about being a dyslexic reader and tackling long books, triggered by beginning The Mirror & The Light, which comes in at 875 pages. I think this ranks as one of my most taxing reads. It’s like spontaneously choosing to go on a really long run after a significant break. You want to do it and you know you are going to be happy afterwards even though you will hurt and your body is going to rebel. Your nose is going to run and your lungs are going to burn. If you read The Mirror & The Light in hardback form, your arm is going to hurt, your eyes are going to get tired, and if your neurodivergence is like mine, you are going to fight for every word, especially in the “dreams” and flashbacks, which I am giving you permission to skim.
What I love about these books is how vivid the characters are, even though you are given relatively little descriptive information about them. The Mirror & the Light has more laughs in it than the two before it but Mantel slowly builds a sense of foreboding throughout the book. We experience Cromwell get flustered and wrongfooted and doubt the signs even as more people tell him to mind the fall that is coming to him. Deliciously, Mantel slowly removes most of the characters that bring Cromwell comfort as we edge closer to the end of the book. Suddenly, Richard Cromwell (his son) is just a name and not a person. Suddenly, you’ve forgotten the name of Cromwell’s irascible cook. It’s delightful. Mantel also expands her style of dialogue when we come to the interrogations of Cromwell so it’s like being in a play or really great film. Think 12 Angry Men with ruffs. Sumptuous. My stomach still hurts from reading the final pages as we proceed to Cromwell’s execution. I could feel myself getting a tension headache as I read. What a feat this novel is.
With all three of Wolf Hall books, I find Mantel writes an appealing first chapter and then the novel moves forward really very slowly. It duly accelerates around the midway point until you feel like you are hurtling through the action to some dramatic punctuation at the end. If you make it to the middle, it pays off but I do think you have to want to finish these books. You have to care about “the Tudors”. (Note: I recently ran a session on Six: The Musical [concept musical/pop concert sing-off between the six wives of Henry VIII] and many people in the room were unfamiliar with Anne of Cleves. Assuming knowledge is assuming privilege. Don’t be that person.) I became very attached to Cromwell, Christophe, Rafe Sadler, Anne Boleyn (don’t @ me), Hans Holbein, and Cromwell’s painting of the Queen of Sheba, but I also feel like you experience a narrative sag when you read any of them.
If you have reading challenges and enjoy audiobooks, I would really recommend starting these volumes in recorded form. I borrowed my audiobooks from Sheffield Libraries and that’s the only way that made it through Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies (the first two books in this trilogy). All three are like aural histories of a the life and career of the politician. You live out Thomas Cromwell’s experiences with him and therefore they lend themselves to narration.
I need to lie down now but I am very grateful for this book. I wanted to give it three stars on Goodreads. But I won’t.