Monday 1 February 2021

Review by Paul Jenkins of "The Mirror and the Light" by Hilary Mantel

Anticipation, comparison and expectation are difficult emotive foes to appease. How do bands and singers follow their breakthrough song or album? Few rarely do successfully. How does a writer follow not only best sellers, but two Booker Prizes?  

Eight years had passed since Hilary Mantel's ‘Bring Up the Bodies’ had secured her second Booker Prize. Anticipation, expectation, and comparison had never reached such heights before ‘The Mirror and the Light’ was published in 2020, drawing the life of Thomas Cromwell to a conclusion. It is against these measurements and emotions with which we must contend, to write a fair review of the final novel of this Tudor trilogy. It is exceptionally difficult to do so.

What is without doubt, is that Hilary Mantel continues to write with exceptional knowledge and clarity of Tudor life. It's hard to pinpoint whether the title author or historian suits her more. The detail around Tudor life; food, colours, fashion, and house décor are extraordinary. You are given an unparalleled vivid lesson into the textures and fabrics of everyday Reformation Britain. You can feel and breathe it. The characters are alive as the political noose tightens around the hero. Is he a hero or deserving of his fate? Texts books portray Cromwell as a villain, but Mantel offers a more nuanced perspective.

The Tudor court was all about survival, and Cromwell was better at survival than most – he needed to be. Mantel makes him come alive, and I for one was urging him to navigate the class machinations that ultimately secured his downfall. For me he became a hero and I wanted him to survive. Alas, no, and Mantel’s final words still pain me as his blood spills onto the scaffold. The jury decide that there will be no third Booker Prize, but that does not diminish this final book of the trilogy. For me, the emotive foes have been successfully equalled and that is more than good enough. Take a bow, Hilary Mantel.   

About the reviewer
Paul Jenkins is 56 years old, with wide ranging interests in history, hill walking and the arts.

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