With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a close the trilogy she began with her peerless, Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. She traces the final years of Thomas Cromwell, the boy from nowhere who climbs to the heights of power, offering a defining portrait of predator and prey, of a ferocious contest between present and past, and between royal will and a common man’s vision.
...magnificent ... The portrait of Thomas Cromwell...now concludes with a novel of epic proportions, every bit as thrilling, propulsive, darkly comic and stupendously intelligent as its predecessors ... orking with and against our foreknowledge, Mantel keeps us on the brink, each day to be invented ... The Mirror & the Light is generously self-sufficient – to read this alone would hardly be skimping: it is four or five books in itself. But it also continues, deepens, and revises its forebears, negotiating with its past as does Cromwell with his ... [Mantel] is still exuberantly rethinking what novels can do. Not since Bleak House has the present tense performed such magic. The narrative voice rides at times like a spirit or angel on thermals of vitality, catching the turning seasons, the rhythms of work and dreams, cities and kitchens and heartbeats ... Endings, insists Cromwell, are opportunities. What begins now is the rereading. For this is a masterpiece that will keep yielding its riches, changing as its readers change, going forward with us into the future.
...we all know how the story ends. And this is where Mantel’s supreme artistry is most evident: she creates suspense and apprehension where none should exist ... These books are precision-engineered, and none more so than The Mirror and the Light. It may be less obviously dramatically focused than Bring Up the Bodies, which spanned less than a year and concentrated almost exclusively on events leading up to Anne’s death, but the plot here is shaped as meticulously as any thriller. Chekhov’s gun is there on every page: words spoken carelessly or in jest are later repeated in a court of law, their meaning twisted; gifts given in innocence are produced with new motives ascribed. The technical skill required to marshall the events of these four years between 1536 and 1540...while rendering those events comprehensible and dramatic to contemporary readers, is breathtaking ... There is nothing sentimental in Cromwell’s end, only the most devastating humanity, leaving the reader with stopped breath and a sense of amazement, after closing the book, that the real world is continuing outside. It feels redundant to state that The Mirror and the Light is a masterpiece. With this trilogy, Mantel has redefined what the historical novel is capable of; she has given it muscle and sinew, enlarged its scope, and created a prose style that is lyrical and colloquial, at once faithful to its time and entirely recognisable to us. Taken together, her Cromwell novels are, for my money, the greatest English novels of this century. Someone give the Booker Prize judges the rest of the year off.
...the tightly symmetrical trajectories that organized the first two volumes and generated their morals and meanings have gone. This book has to embrace a concatenation of major events, any one of which could be the matter of an entire novel ... Unfortunately, it’s beyond even her skill to hold these disparate happenings together, and the result is a bloated and only occasionally captivating work ... To be sure, this huge canvas, expertly painted as always, offers many of the pleasures you’ve come to expect of Mantel and her Cromwell books. These include stretches of sumptuous prose; something about the Tudor milieu has brought greater amplitude and gorgeousness to Mantel’s style. Throughout, there are swoony passages that—like certain Dutch paintings of the century after Cromwell’s—exult in cataloguing the material richness of a society newly confident in itself: the food and the fabrics, the jewels and the spices, the meats, the tapestries, the wines ... The hubris theme is too intermittent, too submerged beneath the exhausting accumulation of events and details, to make things cohere. Other tactics fall short, too ... By the time you get to Cromwell’s execution—a brilliantly imagined moment, and perhaps the best single scene here—the incidents and details, all no doubt with some basis in history, have overwhelmed any discernible pattern ... for all the additional events it relates, nothing in The Mirror and the Light is really new—or, I should say, really 'novel.' The great quantity of matter here will no doubt satisfy fans of both the Tudors and Mantel; but since when was that the point? If an author has told a tale well, given it a firm shape and delineated its themes, brought its hero sufficiently to life to leave an indelible impression, she’s done her job. Everything else is just words, words, words.