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.
What Mantel has are much more useful qualities: a researcher’s in-depth grasp of every topic she writes about, fearlessness, originality and robust common sense. Her wide-ranging pieces, spanning three decades, are the best kind of critical writing, rich with recondite knowledge, wearing their learning lightly ... What sets Mantel’s novels apart is also what sets her critical writing apart: an unerring eye for the telling detail, the clue that will unlock what she calls 'the puzzle of personal identity' ... The author is, of course, quite brilliant on the Tudors and the various iterations of Henry VIII, from strapping young prince, through pious apostate to tyrannical Bluebeard ... speak she does, with passion and eloquence, not just about the ills of our bodily existence, but about the one beyond.
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.