Review 1582: The Mirror and the Light

Best of Ten!
At last, Hilary Mantel has produced this long-awaited third volume of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, begun with Wolf Hall. One of the remarkable traits of this trilogy is that it lives fully within the thoughts of its main character, and never has a character been so thoroughly drawn.

The Mirror and the Light begins with the beheading of Anne Boleyn, which Cromwell has largely brought about at the urging of Henry VIII. Indeed, he has been avenged against most of the people who ruined his first and beloved master, Cardinal Wolsey, and Anne Boleyn was one of them.

However, his service is now devoted to that of his current master, Henry VIII. He sees that service to bring down Henry’s enemies but also to save Henry from the worst of his excesses. One of his first acts is to save Mary Tudor’s life by bringing her to obedience to her father. He also works to keep the realm within the Protestant religion. So, after the death of Henry’s third queen, Jane, following childbirth, he tries to find Henry a wife who will bring him allies from the Protestant German states. For England is alone and open to attacks from all Catholic countries.

I know my Tudor history, so I knew all along how this would end. The novels show a man who can be ruthless but who is also charitable, kind, and loyal. Not all of his cheerful, unruly household of semi-adopted sons turn out to be as loyal to him.

The last thirty pages or so of this novel had me in tears. For me, there can be no better compliment to a book.

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Day 1105: Fludd

Cover for FluddAll of Hilary Mantel’s writing has some sort of edge, but I’m beginning to feel that I enjoy more her work that isn’t quite as satirical, her historical fiction, for example, as opposed to some of her earlier, blacker works. Fludd was written in 1989 and fits firmly into the latter category.

Mantel’s note states that she depicts a 1950’s-ish Catholic church that never existed, but having read her memoir, I would venture to say that there are seeds of her childhood both in the setting and in her depiction of the church.

Father Angwin is a well-meaning, old-fashioned sort of priest working in an ugly church stuffed with statues of saints in a dismal working-class town called Fetherhoughton. He has long ago lost his faith, but he is struggling along as best he can. The bishop, whom he calls His Corpulence, wants him to make the church more “relevant:” modernize the service and get rid of the saints. He also says he is sending Father Angwin a curate.

Although Father Angwin thinks the people need the saints, he reluctantly buries them in the church yard. Shortly thereafter, a man appears at the door of the presbytery whom everyone assumes is the curate. People find themselves confiding their innermost secrets to him. He never seems to eat, but his food disappears. No one can recall his face when he’s not there.

Sister Philomena is a young Irish nun in the convent. She was evicted from her Irish convent because her mother claimed her skin rash was stigmata, and she went along with it. Her days are tormented by Mother Perpetua, the terror of the convent. She also finds herself confiding in Fludd.

But who is Fludd? Is he the curate, a demon, an angel? In any case, he’s an agent for change.

I don’t think I understand Catholicism, or indeed any religion, well enough to grasp the theological issues or even everything Mantel is poking fun at. I think this novel would be a much more pointed weapon if read by a lapsed Catholic. Mantel claims to have seen a demon, and demons lurk throughout her work. This is a funny but peculiar one.

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Day 695: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Cover for The Assassination of Margaret ThatcherThe Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is a collection of short stories that reveal an unusual sensibility. Some of the stories echo other of Hilary Mantel’s writings.

For example, the first story, “Sorry to Disturb,” seems as if it could be a chapter from Mantel’s Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. It is about an English woman living in Saudi Arabia who has troubles with a Pakistani man she befriends. Several other stories refer to physical ailments that she talks about in her memoir Giving Up the Ghost. Another story, “Terminus,” is about seeing the ghost of her father on the subway. But of course, many writers’ fiction has an element of the autobiographical.

The title story has more than a hint of the absurd. In the story, an apartment owner is held hostage by a sniper who is waiting for Margaret Thatcher to emerge from the hospital below her window. The hostage, who doesn’t like Thatcher either, begins helping with the planned attack and escape.

All of these stories are impeccably written, some are haunting, and all reflect the workings of an unusual mind.

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Day 629: Giving Up the Ghost

Cover for Giving Up the GhostBest Book of the Week!
In this gripping memoir, ghosts haunt author Hilary Mantel—the spectres of her past, her stepfather’s shade stumbling around the upper reaches of her holiday cottage, the spirit of her unborn daughter, the wisps of her yet unwritten books, and most confoundingly, the black smudge of an apparition that invaded her body when she was seven. Mantel’s is a memoir of wit, anger, and poetic truth.

It also meanders. It begins with the sale of Owl Cottage—where Hilary senses the ghost of her stepfather even though he never lived there—but then returns to the earliest memories of her childhood.

Of Irish Catholic parents, she grew up in the grim north England town of Hadfield, near Manchester. Although her family was poor, her earliest memories are the rich ones of her grandparents and aunts, who lived all along the lane, indulging the imagination of a child who was a knight of the round table, a red Indian, a priest, and was due to turn into a boy when she was four. To me, this last detail is one of the most charming. I can see this little girl.

Then a serious illness struck, changing her from a sturdy tough child with long black hair to a wispy, frail blonde girl, no longer due to change to a boy. From then on it seemed she was robbed of her true self.

The memoir details her rigid Catholic school education, where she developed an intolerance for ridiculous questions, from those asked by her teachers. It also tells of the more profound loss of her childhood, when her mother moved the family out of that lane of relatives so that she could take up life with her lover, Jack. Hilary’s father Henry was relegated to the status of a lodger and then left behind when Hilary won a place at a better school, never to be seen again.

The most debilitating events of her life began when she was a young married woman studying law. The extreme pains in her legs were diagnosed by patronizing and sexist doctors as mental rather than physical problems, caused by the stress of her studies on her feeble female brain, and she was treated first with Valium and later with anti-psychotics. What she actually had was endometriosis, which she finally diagnosed herself. It was left untreated so long that she ended up having a hysterectomy at age 29. She had put off having a child, and it was too late. The effects on her health continue to this day.

Mantel’s memoir is vividly and beautifully written. She strips herself bare, and it is unforgettable.

Day 315: Beyond Black

Cover for Beyond BlackI have liked almost everything I have read by Hilary Mantel but could not finish Beyond Black. It is supposed to be extremely black humor, which I usually enjoy, and the idea is certainly an entertaining one, but somehow I felt it went too far, at least for me.

Alison is a medium who travels the rounds of the psychic “fayres.” She actually does see and hear the dead. Alison meets Colette, an event planner, who she hires as her personal assistant. Soon, the two women are sharing a house in a suburban wasteland, where apparently all hell breaks loose. (I did not get this far in the novel.)

Mantel’s skewering of the “fayres” is amusing. Another clever idea in the novel is that the dead are a bunch of seedy characters obsessed with trivial things, just as are many people in life. However, after awhile the sheer bulk of the trivialities becomes overwhelming.

Alison’s spirit guide, Morris, instead of being the traditional Indian chief or swami, is the ghost of an actual hoodlum Alison knew when she was young. I could deal with the spirits constantly talking about minutia, but Morris was incredibly repulsive and disgusting. With the mundanity going over the top combined with my disgust at Morris, I stopped reading.

Day 84: Bring Up the Bodies

Cover for Bring Up the BodiesBest Book of the Week! Year!

If Wolf Hall was a wonderful historical novel, Bring Up the Bodies is masterly. In this second of a trilogy, Hilary Mantel continues the story of Thomas Cromwell. Bring Up the Bodies is more focused than the last book, because it deals with a much shorter time period and defined subject–the downfall of Anne Boleyn.

The writing is elegant and impeccable. I have read a few comments that Wolf Hall was sometimes difficult to follow because the readers could not always tell who was meant by “him” or “he.” Mantel has written both books using a strict third person limited point of view, from that of Cromwell, and people don’t think of themselves by their first names. Hence, the difficulty, which I did not notice as a problem in Bring Up the Bodies. This technique is very difficult to employ successfully–we are much more used to a third person that changes from character to character or even to third person omniscient. But Mantel uses it effortlessly to create a memorable character in Cromwell–kind but implacable, one who fosters the growth of others but does not forget the crimes and indignities committed against Cardinal Wolsey, whom he loved as as a father.

Henry VIII has already decided he wants to rid himself of Anne Boleyn and marry Jane Seymour, but Anne has one more chance. She is carrying a child, and if it is born alive and is a boy, she is safe. Henry must have an heir, and he has decided that if he hasn’t been given one, God must have found some fault with his marriage to Anne just as there was one for his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. Thomas Cromwell must find him some way out of his difficulties.

Of course, Cromwell helped Anne to her position in the first place, but the Boleyns have made many enemies in their enjoyment of power, and they have treated him with disdain. More importantly, Anne Boleyn destroyed the Cardinal, and her brother mocked him in his downfall.

From the moment you begin reading, you find yourself plunged into the Tudor world of shifting politics and intrigue. Of course, we know what happens to Anne Boleyn, yet the novel maintains its suspense. The Boleyn and Howard families are going to suffer a huge defeat, but they will go down fighting.

Day 77: Wolf Hall

Cover for Wolf HallBest Book of Week 16!

This is a good time to write about Wolf Hall, because I was thrilled to learn that Hilary Mantel’s sequel to it has just come out. My copy is arriving soon. Mantel is always an interesting writer whose work does not occupy any one genre, although her last few books have been historical fiction. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker Prize and was one the best books I read in 2010.

The novel looks at the political and religious machinations of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from low origins to become Henry’s chief minister. Although Cromwell has traditionally been viewed as Henry’s “heavy,” recent historians have looked at his career more kindly, showing that his work as chief minister brought England into more modern statehood and that his changes created more order for government functions that were less controlled by the whims of nobility.

Mantel depicts Cromwell as a loyal man who cares for his dependents and works to reform England. He builds up a great household as he moves from the position of secretary to Cardinal Wolsey to work for the king. Later, after the Cardinal’s downfall, he slowly, almost imperceptibly, works to bring down those who furthered their own interests by destroying the Cardinal, including the rapacious Boleyns.

Cromwell is loving to his family and friends, completely faithful to the Cardinal and then to Henry, intelligent, able in many spheres of work, and decent. Mantel paints a charming pictures of his home life. In contrast, she turns the tables on Thomas More, venerated for centuries, showing him as a sadistic torturer of Protestants who is in love with his own martyrdom.

Cromwell meets Jane Seymour when she is a young, lonely lady’s maid to the queen, teased and neglected by the rest of the court, and feels pity for her. Later, after he is long widowed, he falls in love with her. The title of the book is the name of her ancestral home, Wolf Hall.

Mantel’s approach is understated, leaving the reader sometimes to connect the ideas. The details in this novel seem completely authentic, and Mantel handles the period brilliantly. She somehow manages to generate tension and suspense even about things we know all about, like what will happen to Anne Boleyn.