Updated: March 3, 2020 11:44:45 am
Born on 6 July 1952, Hilary Mantel is among the most acclaimed English writers today. She is the first woman to have won the prestigious Booker Prize twice, for books part of the Thomas Cromwell trilogy, consisting of Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). The third and last book, The Mirror and the Light which will culminate — quoting the author, “the rise, rise and sudden fall of Cromwell” — is slated to be out this month.
The excitement surrounding it is similar to the buildup around Margaret Atwood’s The Testament last year. The extensive and exhaustive trilogy charts the journey of Cromwell from when he was a blacksmith’s son and how he became one of Henry VIII’s most important men to later, as one of the most significant contributors in the Tudor policy.
In Wolf Hall, Mantel distilled the events between 1500 to 1535 and traced the rise of Cromwell in Henry VIII’s court and concluded with the death of Sir Thomas More. In the following book, Bring Up the Bodies, she delved deeper into Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s relationship, his disillusionment with her and Cromwell’s resolve of bringing her down. In the third book, Cromwell is where he was at the end of the second, in May 1536.
Critic Stephanie Merritt, in an early review in The Guardian, praises Mantel’s ambition but mostly her vision. In her piece, she acknowledges the oft levelled criticism against historical novels: the ending is known. And yet, such a reading, she cautions, is pitiable.
“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,” she writes.
In a video interview with The Guardian, Mantel had confessed that perhaps writing the trilogy was the purpose of her life. Her craft was hitherto tested so that she could write those books. In an interview with Channel 4 News, she had shared that though she has written more contemporary novels, she derives more satisfaction writing historical fiction. She had concluded that it was her strength.
There is an evident curiosity regarding Mantel winning the Booker again. Merritt puts all speculations to rest. “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,” she writes.
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