Book Review: Book with fitting conclusion to an extraordinary trilogy

Was there ever a book so eagerly anticipated as the final part of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Henry VIII’s chief strategist and thug, Thomas Cromwell?

Thursday, 9th September 2021, 6:00 am

The Mirror and the Light was published in 2020, eight years after Bring Up the Bodies and 11 after Wolf Hall, both of which won the Booker Prize. No pressure there, then.

Predictably, it’s glorious. Mantel’s writing is so good it’s obscene.

How is it possible to write a book of this size about centuries-old political and make it so gripping, every sentence so beautiful?

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel.

We begin where Bring Up the Bodies left us – with a blade of French steel slicing though Anne Boleyn’s neck.

And, from there, we follow Cromwell for four years as he tries to keep the monstrous Henry, ‘half God, half beast,’ happy – out of wars and supplied with wives.

Historians have wondered how a blacksmith’s son from Putney rose to become the Earl of Essex.

But, if in reality Cromwell was anything like he is portrayed here, we don’t wonder at all.

We see the quiet wisdom, the ability to remember everything, the strategy.

But the real secret of his meteoric success is revealed in an unlikely moment where he supervises getting a cat out of a tree.

He stops to think from the perspective of the cat – what will make it want to come down so we don’t have to force it?

Henry, it turns out, cannot be happy – and he must have a scapegoat. The Mirror and the Light shares many of the qualities of a good crime novel – there’s a whodunit, or rather a whowilldoit, at the heart of this story.

Who will betray Cromwell? Mantel foreshadows like mad – we suspect most of his inner circle at different times – and the answer is still heart-breaking.

I don’t think Mantel realises she’s writing historical fiction.

The action is so dynamic, so present – literally – that we eat, sleep, breathe this world.

The Mirror and the Light may not have scooped a Booker, but it’s a fitting conclusion to this extraordinary trilogy of novels.

Follow author Anna @AnnaCaig on Twitter for more literary content.