In 1987, when Hilary Mantel was first published in the London Review of Books, she wrote to the editor, Karl Miller, 'I have no critical training whatsoever, so I am forced to be more brisk and breezy than scholarly.' This collection of twenty reviews, essays and pieces of memoir from the next three decades, tells the story of what happened next.
Mantel Pieces, which includes nearly 30 years of Mantel’s essays for The London Review of Books, accompanied by facsimiles of her correspondence with its editors, is the story of an outsider finding her literary home ... A good third of Mantel Pieces is devoted to kings and queens and courtiers, another third to the revolutionaries who are out to string them up. It’s clear where Mantel’s sympathies lie: Royals are mythic, archaic, 'both gods and beasts,' but it’s their assassins — the stiff-backed, lawyerly, provincial fanatics — whom she loves ... My favorite sentence in this book is uncharacteristically quiet, almost plaintive, let fall sotto voce in the middle of a hospital-bed memory: 'I wonder, though, if there is a little saint you can apply to, if you are a person with holes in them?' ... I suspect we all are people with holes in them, and there are many saints to apply to. For those who feel compelled to examine not just their own 'perforations' but the world’s, St. Hilary is your woman.
Vast and various, the book offers the reader a fascinating vision of the restless intelligence that — in conjuring the Wolf Hall trilogy for which Mantel is most famous — has sustained and entertained so many. But it also functions as a heartening example of the rewards to be found in being undogmatic, curious, alert, roaming ... Occasionally, the manner in which Mantel articulates her thoughts can be inattentive (she has a weakness for phrases like 'swat a book like a fly'; 'droning on and on'; 'cut their losses'). But on the whole this is a work that is brisk and breezy, and further enhanced by her capacity to examine our hearts, register our feelings, and bring up with tenderness the enduring question of our frail and vulnerable bodies.
Worth buying for the title pun alone, Mantel Pieces brings together three decades’ worth of Hilary Mantel’s criticism in the London Review of Books. Review essays about historical figures including Jane Boleyn, Robespierre and Danton feature alongside pieces on Madonna, the Salman Rushdie fatwa and the killing of Jamie Bulger ... The volume’s standout essay, Royal Bodies, was the subject of some outrage in 2013 because it raised uncomfortable questions about the nation’s voyeuristic relationship with the monarchy. But it has aged well, and will remain pertinent for some time to come.