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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 9 April 2020

"The Mirror and the Light" by Hilary Mantel

This is the concluding part of the trilogy of historical novels whose narrator and protagonist is Thomas Cromwell, the Master Secretary to Henry VIII. It follows Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, both of which won Booker Prizes. It has therefore been extremely well-anticipated and a best-seller even before its publication. It is a hefty tome: my hardback edition is 875 pages long; it took me eight days to read it. The question is: does it live up to the hype?

Mantel is a very talented writer. I loved Wolf Hall, the first in this series, and I have been impressed by Bring Up the Bodies and Vacant Possession although I think my favourite is Beyond Black.

There is no doubt that I found this book a chore to read. I loved the quirky style which, like the first two in the series, is narrated in the present tense and with the first person narrator describing himself as 'he' (or 'he, Cromwell' is 'he' might be ambiguous). There is no doubt that Mantel writes fluent prose. But there was so much of it, so much detail, and I wondered whether it was necessary to give us everything.

The metaphor of the mirror is also used repeatedly as a motif; it felt a little less than subtle.

Sometimes, as in the other books in the series, Thomas Cromwell seems to be the ideal of 'how to be a leader' books:

  • "It is important to reward good service with encouragement, as well as a purse." (1.1)
  • "That's the point of a promise ... It wouldn't have any value, if you could see what it would cost you when you made it." (1.2)

There are some great descriptions and somehow she manages to describe things in the mind of the times:

  • "these gaunt rooms, the ovens cold, the fires ash, the thick walls not so much repelling the cold as encasing it, like a reliquary." (1.3)
  • "In the smoke that still lingered, he could see certain shapes, low and slinking. At a distance bot looping closer, the dogs of London." (4.1)

Perhaps the true triumph of this work (all three volumes) is that by so thoroughly immersing us in a world that is a once both alien and familiar (because we are all men and women, with the joys and sorrows of our little lives, no matter what our culture or our age) and emphasising this nearness and strangeness by placing Cromwell in this disruptive third-person narrator, Mantel can offer us perspectives on ourselves as if from afar:

  • "He is at home wherever he wakes." (1.1)
  • "The darkness falls away from her in flecks and sparks of light, the roofs and gables like shadows in water; and when she studies the net there is no net, only the spaces between." (1.1)
  • "The counting house where the units of obligation are fixed and the coins of shame are weighed." (1.2)
  • "Go forward, sir. It's the one direction God permits." (1.2)
  • "Everyone complains about builders, the time they take, the mounting expense, the noise and the dust, but he likes their banging and thudding, their songs and their chat, their shortcuts and secret lore." (1.2)
  • "As a boy he was always climbing about on someone's roof, often without their knowledge. Show him a ladder and he was up it, seeking a longer view. But when he got up there, what could he see? Only Putney." (1.2)
  • "'Ladders? I have wings.' 'Then flit into the dusk ... before they melt'." (1.2)
  • "Wars begin in man's time, but they end in God's time." (1.2)
  • "The dead wander the lanes of the next life like strangers lost in Venice." (1.3)
  • "You're as twisty as a skewer." (1.3)
  • "She may as well be transparent, for all she has to hide." (2.1)
  • "right is what you can get away with, and wrong is what they whip you for." (2.3)
  • "You can pray at home. It costs you less, you don't get robbed on the road, and you don't spread diseases or carry them back to your native country." (3.1)
  • "The blind man sees, but the faces he knew in his young days are altered; and when he asks for a mirror, he doesn't recognise himself at all." (3.1)
  • "None of us can stand anything. Scrape our skin, and beneath it there is an infant, howling." (3.2)
  • "Whereas we bless an old soldier, and give him alms, pitying his blind or limbless state, we do not make heroes of women mangled in the struggle to give birth. If she seems so injured that she can have no more children, we commiserate with her husband." (3.3)
  • "Nothing protects you, nothing. In the last ditch, not rank, nor kin. Nothing between you and the fire." (4.1)
  • "Friendship swears it will stand and never alter, but when the weather changes men change their coat." (4.2)
  • "What is fact and what is allegory, what is human and what is divine. Can God be baked into bread? When we consume the host, why do we not hear the cracking of his bones? Is he still God, when he churns in our guts?" (4.2)
  • "Hot as a devil's fart, word rattled round Europe." (4.2)
  • "Two ageing men in failing light, talking about their past because they have so much of it." (5.2)
  • "The law is not an instrument to find out truth. It is there to create a fiction to help us move past atrocious acts and face our future." (6.1)
  • "We are all dying, just at different speeds." (6.1)

An impressive achievement, a heavyweight tome, a well-told story. April 2020; 875 pages

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