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The Mirror & The Light

3 reasons NOT to read Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy – and why you should ignore ALL of them


1. “I read another book by Hilary Mantel and didn’t like it.”

Me too. I’m not an indiscriminate Mantel fan. In fact, halfway through her enormous 1992 novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, I was wondering if I’d live long enough to get to the end of it. And her book Beyond Black certainly requires patient reading through its dense prose style but this is repaid a thousandfold by the wickedly dark humour and magnificent imagination driving one of the weirdest books ever written.

But Wolf Hall? And Bring Up The Bodies? These books are simply in another league.

Mantel won the 2009 Booker Prize for Wolf Hall and took out the 2012 Booker Prize after publication of the second book in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies. She is the only person ever to win the prize for 2 novels in a trilogy. For me, Wolf Hall was a brilliant literary read, but Bring up the Bodies was so good it astonished me. So good, it feels a little arrogant to even consider reviewing it.

Mantel is an extraordinarily intelligent writer at the top of her game, with superb command of language and material. I simply feel indebted to her for her skills, her labours, and the diamond-cut world she reveals. Our world. Can she add a third prize to the net, ten years after her last? If anyone can, it will be Mantel.

2. “I Don’t Like Historical Fiction.”

This is perhaps the most frequent comment I’ve heard from people who haven’t read the first two books of the trilogy. Even well-regarded booksellers have been known to refer to Mantel fans as “Tudor nuts”. Sad, really. Sad, because people who say this are going to miss so much. Sad, because Mantel’s fierce intellect, subversive wit, and deep understanding of the mind make any genre classification redundant.

The story she has chosen is indeed a fascinating one; her perspective even more so. But plunging into a maelstrom of humanity as rich and meaningful today as it ever was, who’s counting the years? Do we read these two books and come away changed, wiser, gobsmacked at the language and the talent? I did. What more can we ask? This is literature so satisfying, I wouldn’t care if she’d set the books in a futuristic Italian spaghetti orchard.

3. “I started reading Wolf Hall but I found it confusing.”

I know a few readers who’ve said this to me. Some gave up after the first few pages, others kept reading. I think there are places at the start of Wolf Hall where Mantel needs you to trust her. At first, there’s a slight unfamiliarity with the storytelling voice, a hint of ambiguity. Be patient. Go with her, just go. Take her hand, slide into that consciousness, trust her intelligence and listen to the story. She soon shows you the way. And the way leads on to the second sublime book in the Wolf Hall trilogy, her second Booker prize.

There are rare Booker years when I’ve agreed with the outcome: 1979, Penelope Fitzgerald’s Offshore; 1987, Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger; 1997, Arundhati Roy’s perfect jewel of a novel The God of Small Things, to name some. And I was pretty chuffed when The English Patient won the Golden Man Booker in 2018 (the award for the best novel to win the Booker in 50 Years) – it being in my personal top 10.

I love the bizarre and the brilliant (as Faber & Faber puts it). Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, William Trevor’s My House in Umbria, Delia Falconer’s Lost Thoughts of Soldiers, Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing, Graham Swift’s Waterland, Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary, Love in the Time of Cholera by Marquez, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. I could go on …

But now, finally, ten years in the making, and with the chance of a Booker hat trick, Mantel’s third book in the Wolf Hall trilogy is here: The Mirror and the Light. Are you ready?

Written by Andrea