The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
After fourteen attempts at starting this review for The Mirror & the Light, I had to stop and ask myself, ‘Why is this so difficult?’. I think the answer is that, for many, this final book in the Wolf Hall trilogy is a big deal. Ever since the release of the initial book in 2009, readers have become emotionally invested in this series, both for the extraordinary talent of its writer, Hilary Mantel, and for the complexity of her central character, Thomas Cromwell.
The Mirror & the Light overlaps slightly with the ending of Bring up the Bodies, as Cromwell and his son Gregory stand amidst the aftermath of Anne Boleyn’s execution. Thomas Cromwell is now fifty, Master Secretary to Henry VIII and, for many of his contemporaries, Cromwell is the most direct and influential way to communicate with the king. In just under 900 pages (don’t panic, it’s totally worth it) Hilary Mantel tracks the last four years of Cromwell’s life.
The first obvious difference between The Mirror & the Light and the earlier novels is the book’s structure. The first two books each have one main story arc (Henry marries Anne Boleyn and then Henry gets rid of Anne Boleyn). The third book is much more episodic; arguments over religion, rebellion from the North and the threat of war from abroad are all on the menu. Most importantly, the Tudor dynasty is at stake. As other claimants to the throne (the Poles) wait eagerly in the wings, Richmond, Mary and Elizabeth are all declared ‘bastards’ by Henry. The line of succession now depends on whether Henry’s third wife (Jane Seymour) can produce the legitimate male heir that the king so desperately needs.
The past is extremely important in this book and I would encourage readers who don’t have the first two books fresh in their minds to re-read them first. The pay-off is that much greater as the three books together have a powerful cumulative effect. Keep track of all the characters as well as you can and refer to Mantel’s list at the start of the book whenever in doubt. Cromwell’s interactions with these people may seem unrelated at times, but trust the author; it’s all part of the plan.
Thematically, the key to this final book is in its title. The Mirror & the Light is filled with images of mirrors, shadows, light and darkness. It is about Thomas Cromwell reflecting upon his past and present: his abusive father and his much-missed father figure (Wolsey); the family he has lost and the family he still has; and, ultimately, what he has sacrificed morally to serve a king. He has often found it necessary to misrepresent others and create an illusion of truth, where there is none, just so the king can move forward. Cromwell is aware, however, of his precarious situation and that his time (as with so many before him) may be limited by his position too close to the ‘light’ of England. I sobbed through the last three pages of this book; Mantel gives Cromwell an ending that is meaningful but true to character and unsentimental.
Respected by both critics and peers, Mantel has won the Booker Prize for both of the first two titles in this trilogy (time will tell if she wins for all three). Awards aside, what matters most is the connection she makes with her readers. As I read this final book off the back of re-reading the first two, I had to constantly remind myself not to take this type of writing for granted. It is ambitious, witty, meticulously researched and driven by the author’s natural talent, hard work and passion for her main character.
Mantel has said in interviews that she will not attempt a work of this magnitude again, but she doesn’t need to. I have not felt this emotionally attached to a trilogy since Sam carried Frodo up Mount Doom.