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  • Adam Tye

The Mirror & the Light (Wolf Hall #3): Review

I knew I wouldn't let The Mirror & the Light go, but there were times where my breaks between reading were so long, where the act of reading was so elusive, that I did wonder if I would ever see the end. Maybe Cromwell's final moments would forever remain a mystery to me - perhaps I would never know how Hilary Mantel had chosen to render his death on the page.

Anyway. I did it. So, what took me so long?

There are people who have quite reasonably made the argument that The Mirror & the Light represents the high point for Mantel's Cromwell series. I assume none of them read for fun. This is a phenomenally well-written text, but it also the most difficult of the trilogy - the one that is hardest to wrap your head around (pray thanks, Al, that this book did not win the Man Booker Prize, because if this had been on your 'Man Booker' to-read list, I think you would have been trying to book a one-way ticket to Tower Hill). Back last year when the Guardian held a Q&A session with Mantel, I submitted a question presumably too stuffy for anyone to look at: how do you keep a sense of drama alive when writing a story that has already been written for you? How do you make interesting an event that may resist such assessment? Wolf Hall was an audacious undertaking in wrangling together a capacious, mysterious sliver of history into something grand and understandable. Bring Up the Bodies took all that stored energy and fashioned it into a weapon; rendering the trail and death of Anne Boleyn as a political thriller that shot straight and precise as an arrow. The rise of Cromwell, followed by the accumulation of his powers. You'd think that the resultant fall would be the easiest to document.

Instead, The Mirror & the Light's heady 4-year span of history resists such comparatively 'easy' adaptation (please note that the word 'comparatively' is doing a lot of heavy lifting here). There is little singular throughline in the years that precede Cromwell's death - in fact, it barely feels like there is much structure to the months preceding it, as events move the newly appointed Earl of Essex to the chopping block in the work of a minute. The result is a fractious and heavy story: too singular for multiple novels, but so sprawling as to barely hold together as one. Reading it is as pleasurable as it is unforgiving, like wading through an ocean of treacle. When making my way through a new book, I tend to pay attention to whether the momentum of the experience is ramping - if my investment is gathering mass to the point where it is like a boulder careening down a hill, where nothing will stop it until it reaches its destination. The Mirror & the Light is not one of these books. Even 100 pages before its end (barely one-eighth of the whole), it doesn't feel like Cromwell's life is drawing to a close anytime soon. Perhaps that is the point.

But I will never sit by and let people call this a poor novel. Far far from it. This is a titanic feat of english literature, and if Mantel struggles to pull together these disparate years into a slick reading experience, she is still able to slam down enormous, weighty prose like nobody's business. For all that these books are often credited as feeling very detail-oriented akin to achieving 'time travel', I've often admired the Cromwell trilogy for how it relays the events more as epic poetry than as encyclopaedic recitations. The Mirror & the Light is the culmination of this style, as the weight of myth and history rise around Cromwell, and the power of straight description fails to do it justice. Paradoxically, I think this is exactly what allows the trilogy to achieve the 'time travel' many ascribe to it - history as felt, not as seen.

And despite the aforementioned lack of momentum generated, the act of completing the last few chapters was a physical endeavour - a rare moment for me of feeling queasy about reading on, because I know what's going to happen, and it isn't good. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't enjoyed the experience of Cromwell's power - his wit, his smarts, and his relentless success. He's not a good person - not in the simplest of terms - but in a world of monsters, there is satisfaction to be found in watching the underdog rise and conquer. Cromwell is performing, in essence, a heist on the Royal Institution of Britain, and what is a heist if not a caper where experts act impeccably to get what they want? Seeing that torn from him under Henry VIII's despotic rule was not something I enjoyed, and gives way to some of Mantel's most overwhelming chapters.

I doff my cap to the people of the future who will set about to write theses and sprawling analyses of The Mirror & the Light, because it is almost impossible to do it justice after a single read. I'm looking forward to seeing everyone's unpicking of the text - maybe I'll finally get to understand the significance of Robert Barnes, and why Mantel seems to grant him the only passage in the entire series not written from Cromwell's perspective (a decision that you think would be significant, and yet has been largely lost amidst the enormity of the rest of the book). As for me, well, I can only assume I'll re-read these books some day, but for now I'm looking forward to moving on with something new. This wasn't quite the transcendent capper I had hoped for going in, but when the worst thing you can say about a book is "I see why that didn't win the Man Booker Prize", you know something's gone well.

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