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The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
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£21.99 £25.00

"So the trilogy is complete,” said Alexandra Harris in The Guardian. “And it is magnificent.” The final volume of Hilary Mantel’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell – which began with Wolf Hall in 2009 and continued with Bring Up the Bodies in 2012 (both Booker Prize winners) – opens in 1536, with Cromwell, aged 50, leaving the scene of Anne Boleyn’s beheading. Over the next four years, we follow the self-made blacksmith’s son as he grapples with a “seemingly impossible” list of tasks – including overseeing the dissolution of the monasteries, and brokering Henry VIII’s next two marriages. The second of these, to Anne of Cleves, proves Cromwell’s undoing: displeased with his German bride, Henry blames his chief adviser. The novel teems with incident and historical detail – its cast list features 100 people – yet Mantel wears her learning lightly. It’s a finale “every bit as thrilling, propulsive, darkly comic and stupendously intelligent as its predecessors”.

With these novels, Mantel has “upended our understanding of the whole Tudor period”, said Johanna Thomas-Corr in The Times. Historians had not been kind to Cromwell; but by depicting him as “omni-talented”, and capable of kindness as well as ruthlessness, she has “rehabilitated and humanised” her protagonist. And in doing so, she has “elevated historical fiction as an art form”. The effect of her “brisk, present-tense narration” is to make you feel as if “you are watching these long-settled events live, via a shaky camera phone”. A further, unexpected delight of this “rich, full-bodied” novel is “how funny it is”. Scenes where Cromwell and Henry discuss how to quell a northern rebellion read like a “Tudor version of The Thick of It”. And Henry’s marital tribulations provide a further “rich seam of comedy”.

“The Wolf Hall trilogy is probably the greatest historical fiction accomplishment of the past decade,” said Thomas Mallon in The New York Times. Yet this final volume, at times, feels “woefully laboured”. It is clogged with “food and custom and ceremony”; too much time is spent expounding on its hero’s “fascinating nature”. Rather like Henry, the enterprise has “put on weight and self-importance”. While this may be the “least perfect” of the books, “that still makes it better than almost anything else of its kind”, said Allison Pearson in The Daily Telegraph. With this trilogy, Mantel has done for English history “what the Aeneid did for the Romans and War and Peace for the Russians. We are lucky to have it."

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