March 17, 2020

The Mirror & the Light

By Hilary Mantel
Review by

With this trilogy, Mantel has simply redefined historical fiction. Cromwell may be gone, but long live Hilary Mantel.

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It’s been eight years since we last saw Thomas Cromwell, and Hilary Mantel fans have been waiting impatiently ever since. Even though we knew how this story ends, we still need Mantel to guide us through the final days of the relationship between Henry VIII and his most famous adviser. The wait is over.

The Mirror & the Light opens where Bring Up the Bodies left off. Cromwell has just witnessed the execution of Anne Boleyn. Days later, he is haunted by the memory of the late queen, as well as the five suitors who were also put to death for allegedly having consorted with her. But mostly it’s business as usual: The wedding of the king to third wife Jane Seymour, the dissolution of the monasteries, repressing tax rebellions in the north and the endless jockeying for position among England’s aristocratic families are all in a day’s work for the Renaissance’s hardest-working Privy counselor.

As Cromwell goes about the king’s business, he is troubled by more than these events. Ghost-laden memories arise from a childhood spent as his father’s punching bag and his later years in Europe as a mercenary soldier and financial fixer. Another visiting ghost in the form of his previous employer, Cardinal Wolsey, continues to trouble him. Cromwell’s attempts to form a religious alliance with the Protestant German states through Henry’s marriage to Anna of Cleves backfires, an incident that wounds the king’s pride beyond repair. Cromwell is blamed, and the aristocracy, who have never accepted his origins as the son of a blacksmith, turn on him.

The Mirror & the Light is the longest book of the trilogy, as if Mantel didn’t want to give up her relationship with Cromwell, but that won’t bother readers who may feel the same way. No other contemporary writer has so thoroughly and uniquely entered the mind of a historical character. Told from an unusually close third-person perspective, The Mirror & the Light is lushly written, suspenseful even though you might know its outcome and has occasions of unexpected wry wit. This is the kind of storytelling that so completely transports you, you look up from a chapter not quite knowing where you are.

Mantel has, quite simply, redefined historical fiction with this trilogy. Cromwell may be gone, but long live Hilary Mantel.

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