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Review: The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel

The Mirror and the Light is the third and final book in Hilary Mantel's brilliant Thomas Cromwell trilogy - and oh boy oh boy, is this a fitting conclusion.


Obviously everybody who starts reading this story knows how it ends - and look, I'm sorry, but I'm not tagging the fact that Cromwell dies as a spoiler. Anybody who paid attention in history class knows that Henry VIII had his ministers killed, instead of the - to me - much easier process of just firing them. But what Mantel does so brilliantly in this book is the way she builds up the dread and the anticipation of Cromwell's ultimate end, so that - even though you know how it ends - the speed with which is downfall comes about surprises you, knocks your breath away. The plot is gripping and never lets you catch your breath, to the point where I was actually panting as I raced through the last hundred pages - and I know how this story ends.


Mantel is also, and I cannot stress this enough, a writer of almost incomparable talent. The things she does with the English language are, quite simply, magnificent. The subtlety with which she increases the frequency of her central motifs - mirrors - as you race towards the climax, so that you start getting a little ripple of dread in your tummy without quite being able to place why every time there's a reference to a mirror; to the way you can pinpoint the exact moment in the plot that Wriothesely turns but only in retrospect; the cleverness and absurdity and ambiguity of her dialogue. I think my favourite thing about Mantel's writing in this trilogy, especially in this final book, is how precisely drawn all of her characters are: you can differentiate between the multiple Thomases and Henrys and Charles without any difficulty, because even though the characters are drawn with the broad strokes of her words, she tags them with a certain way of speaking or introducing themselves to a conversation so that you can immediately identify the speaker of a six-person dialogue where they're all referenced as 'he'. I remember reading a review of this series where someone dismisses it out of hand because the dialogue is too difficult to keep pace with -but that's because that person is an idiot who wasn't trying hard enough. The Thomas Cromwell trilogy isn't one you pick up because you want an easy read; you do have to focus and pay attention and try and grasp the details as they go whizzing by you, but my word is it worth it. This is a book of incandescent beauty, and Hilary Mantel is one of the greatest living writers of the English language.


Ultimately, that's the big takeaway from this book and this series more generally. The language in this book is absolutely magnificent. This is a stunning work of prose. The way she stitches together how Cromwell his haunted by his past, the people he's lost, the things he's afraid of and what he's most proud of; how he strives to distance himself from who he was while never being willing to let it go; how the suspense of the novel exists in the way Cromwell knows his end is possible and works to avoid it even as we know it's inevitable. Every sentence carries weight because of how they are brought back as evidence of his treason in his last interrogation. Mantel is also an entirely sagacious narrator - she has achieved, in this book, that thing that so few authors know how to do. She writes a book where she has completely put herself into the story, absorbed herself into Cromwell and his inner life - the richness of his mind as we are getting it isn't filtered through an author trying to prove how clever they are. I read a review of the book where the critic is saying that Mantel has completely rewritten the historical fiction genre with her "prose style that is lyrical and colloquial, at once faithful to its time and entirely recognisable to us". I completely agree - this is a book that exists so completely in our time while also remaining painfully faithful to the brutality of the story she's telling. She has managed to make Cromwell into the most heartbreaking of tragic heroes, one who makes difficult decisions and is haunted by them for what he believes to be the greater good, only to realize that all it has brought is the block.


I do not have the superlatives for this book. It is a masterpiece. The Cromwell trilogy is, I believe, easily the finest piece of literature published in the twenty-first century. Let's all just give her the Booker for this book and call it a year.


Everyone read this series, and read it now. We're all in quarantine - if now's not the time to dive into a 1,000+ page intensive trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, when is the time? You will regret dying without having read these books. They're so, so, so, so good.


Happy reading,

Amélie xx

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About

I’m Amélie, I love books and reading, and I also love talking about them.

I’m incredibly lucky to be bilingual, so I read books in both French and English, and will talk about both of those on here – although I will do more in English, since I know that’s probably what the majority of the people who ever find this blog will be interested in!

I also like history, traveling, Shakespeare, coffee, cheese, musicals, Italian Baroque art, the ballet, Mock the Week and Have I Got News For You, flowers, makeup, high heels, and baking. Yes, I’m a walking cliché. I am aware.

Please do tweet at me with any suggestions/book recommendations/thoughts.

In case you’re curious – yes, Pride and Prejudice is my favorite book of all time.