The Mirror & the Light – Book Review

With The Mirror & the Light, Hilary Mantel brings to a triumphant 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, between royal will and a common man’s vision: of a modern nation making itself through conflict, passion and courage.

The story begins in May 1536: Anne Boleyn is dead, decapitated in the space of a heartbeat by a hired French executioner. As her remains are bundled into oblivion, Cromwell breakfasts with the victors. The blacksmith’s son from Putney emerges from the spring’s bloodbath to continue his climb to power and wealth, while his formidable master, Henry VIII, settles to short-lived happiness with his third queen, Jane Seymour.

Cromwell, a man with only his wits to rely on, has no great family to back him, no private army. Despite rebellion at home, traitors plotting abroad and the threat of invasion testing Henry’s regime to the breaking point, Cromwell’s robust imagination sees a new country in the mirror of the future. All of England lies at his feet, ripe for innovation and religious reform. But as fortune’s wheel turns, Cromwell’s enemies are gathering in the shadows. The inevitable question remains: how long can anyone survive under Henry’s cruel and capricious gaze?

Eagerly awaited and eight years in the making, The Mirror & the Light completes Cromwell’s journey from self-made man to one of the most feared, influential figures of his time. Portrayed by Mantel with pathos and terrific energy, Cromwell is as complex as he is unforgettable: a politician and a fixer, a husband and a father, a man who both defied and defined his age.

The Mirror and the Light (a vivid description of the kingship of Henry VIII (died in 1541) is the third volume in the Thomas Cromwell series of novels by Hilary Mantel (the British novelist who has won two Booker Prizes). The story is the biographical account of Thomas Cromwell the Putney brew/blacksmith’s son who rose to prominence and fell before the ax of the executioner in Tudor England.

Mantell is a great writer of historical fiction and knows the Tudor period like the back of her hand. Her style is poetic and literary. You often have to read her long sentences two or three times to get the meaning. Reading her is slow and her prose is a challenge to master. Several times you have to catch yourself to remember whom is talking to whom. Nevertheless, this book is like you are listening in to intimate conversations among high born sixteenth century ambassadors, and aristocrats. Mantel also enjoys following various characters as they meditate on the past and speculate on the future. Anyone reading her should have a basic understanding of the Tudor times she so well presents to us. There are many characters to keep straight and many stories to follow during the course of almost eight hundred pages. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful book. Enjoy and learn!