The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel

It has been a long eight years, waiting for the return of Thomas Cromwell. Sometimes I have felt as Cardinal Wolsey did as he writhed on his deathbed, longing for Thomas to come back, wanting to believe his arrival might be imminent, while an unctuous servant offers false hope: “You know Cromwell, the devil does not delay him—if he says he is on the road he will be here.”

And here, at last, he is, in The Mirror & the Light, the third volume of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy that began with Wolf Hall in 2009 and continued seamlessly with Bring Up the Bodies in 2012. Both novels received the Booker Prize. I suspect Ladbrokes will be offering the shortest odds in history on Mantel making the trifecta with this novel.

“The Old Consciousness”

Being present for the unfolding of this work has been a privilege. It’s not often that one witnesses the canon expand in real time, but these novels are sure to be among the books that endure from the early decades of this century. Mantel has redefined the work of historical fiction, pushing beyond the boundaries of the genre, getting closer to what Henry James called “the old consciousness” than perhaps any writer before her. She has done this by creating a unique relationship with her protagonist, more capacious than a first-person narration and more intimate than close third. She is able to describe Cromwell from without, even as she seems to inhabit him from within, right down to the molecular level. We feel what he feels on his skin, we squint when the light hurts his eyes, and we follow the brilliant, serpentine, commodious passages of his thoughts and emotions as he ducks and weaves through Henry VIII’s dangerous court.

Reassuringly, since it would be a shame to miss a minute in his bracing company, in The Mirror & the Light we find Cromwell right where we left him. It’s the spring of 1536, and he has just witnessed the execution of Anne Boleyn. It’s all here, everything that made the last two books exceptional. Mantel does not keep us waiting. There is the rich rendering of the material world of Tudor England: the precise grade of the steel in the executioner’s sword, the Toledo blade that “went through her neck like a sigh, easier than scissors through silk”; the constriction of the narrow elm-wood arrow chest used to receive the body, no one having thought to provide a coffin; the unexpected weight of the soaking linen parcel that contains the dead Queen’s head—“Heavier than you expect. Having been on a battlefield, he knows this.”

We follow the serpentine passages of Cromwell’s thoughts as he ducks and weaves through Henry VIII’s dangerous court.

There are the deft strokes that define character: Cromwell’s sweet, non-intellectual son, Gregory, who approaches certain words “with the tail-wagging interest a dog takes in another dog’s turds.” And Cromwell himself, noticing everything, his dialogue spare and slightly dangerous: “She didn’t suffer, Cromwell,” Charles Brandon says, to which Cromwell responds, “My lord Suffolk, you may be satisfied she did.’” Brandon is talking about the speed of her physical death; Cromwell better grasps the agony of lingering fear.

Mantel has created a unique relationship with her protagonist, depicted here by Hans Holbein the Younger.

Very soon it becomes clear that Anne’s erasure hasn’t eased the tensions in Henry’s court. On the contrary, it’s become a precarious place. Having defied the Pope and killed a Queen, the King might do anything. Even as Cromwell, son of a drunken Putney blacksmith, climbs ever higher in rank and grows ever closer to the King, nerves fray, tempers wear thin. In a virtuoso, Joycean passage early in the book, Mantel tosses and turns us in the convolutions of Cromwell’s overheated brain as he drifts in and out of sleep, sifting and sorting: the breakup of the monasteries; additions to his house; where to put Wolsey’s voluminous papers; surveys, bills, auditors, clerks, matters of finance, matters of personnel. It’s not a restful night.

Power to Tower

I think we all know where it ends for Cromwell. But even knowing the what, Mantel ramps up the suspense as she slowly unspools the why, the how, and the who. The fall, when it comes, is sudden and unexpected, even though we’ve been expecting it all along. In a novel that could travel far on character and plot, Mantel adds the accelerant of gorgeous language: “The air as damp as if the afternoon had been rubbed by snails” and “We have all seen Gardiner flouncing from the royal presence, looking like a plaice, with his mouth turned down and his underlip thrust out.”

There is, also, a musicality to the novel. Certain themes, certain memories—many revisiting incidents in the earlier books—replay in Cromwell’s mind. And with each recurring variation, there is a change in pitch and tone. An anecdote unfolds in a simple telling, then it returns later in a comic form, and later still with an added resonance that promotes a slight unease. Finally, we’re in a minor key and the melody is unrecognizable amid all the clashing tritones.

Mantel has redefined the work of historical fiction, pushing beyond the boundaries of the genre.

There is big history here: the Reformation, threat of war, the shifting currents of international diplomacy. We are in strange territory, an era that can feel very foreign, when men are burned slowly with green timber for their views on infant baptism and the King of England believes witchcraft mars his potency. But what is not strange—what is achingly familiar and acutely relevant—is the way Mantel meticulously unfolds to us the nature of the human heart, all the old unchanging lusts, avarices, jealousies, hatreds and loves, the desire to live, the fear of death.

Every historical novelist has to face the underlying question of the task at hand: Are these people the same as we are, or are they different? Henry James said they are different, essentially unknowable. Don’t even bother to attempt to write of them. My answer to James lies in Mantel’s evocation of a young Thomas Cromwell, still sharpening knives in his father’s smithy and exchanging insults with his archenemy, the Eel Boy: “I’ll dint you, craphead.”

Hilary Mantel knows, even if Henry James didn’t: The human heart hasn’t changed that much. They raged as we rage. They loved as we love. And that’s why, when she puts Cromwell in the Tower, alone, thinking on his intricate, unique life as it ticks down swiftly from days to hours, he cries. Of course he does. As, almost half a millennium later, this reader cries with him.

Geraldine Brooks is a journalist and author whose 2005 novel, March, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction