February 28, 2020

Early verdicts heap praise on Hilary Mantel’s 900-page “masterpiece,” The Mirror and the Light


Anne of Cleves: arriving on the scene in ‘The Mirror and the Light’ (Hans Holbein the Younger / Public Domain)

So now, get up to your local book store next week, for the release of The Mirror and the Light—the third in Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary trilogy chronicling the life of Thomas Cromwell. This hugely-anticipated concluding volume follows Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012), both of which won The Booker Prize. The Mirror… will pick up immediately where the latter left off, tracing the events of Henry VIII’s royal court between 1536 (the year of Anne Boleyn’s execution) to 1540, when **SPOILER ALERT** Cromwell himself was executed for treason.

Publisher Fourth Estate announced The Mirror and the Light cryptically via a single billboard in May last year (a stunt that was later revealed to be a clever fake), sparking fevered speculation from the author’s fans. A day later, the news was confirmed in a press release: “We can confirm that #TheMirrorandtheLight—the triumphant conclusion to Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy—will publish in March 2020.” Earlier this month Waterstones revealed to The Bookseller that pre-orders for the book had outstripped those of 2019’s big hitter, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments.

In the intervening years since Bring Up the Bodies, the critical and public admiration for Mantel has only grown—and remember, she was already an author of considerable repute before the Cromwell trilogy. An acclaimed BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall, starring Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damian Lewis as Henry, graced the BBC in 2015. Wolf Hall was also voted number one in The Guardian‘s list of the best books of the 21st century.

The Mirror and the Light has also caught the attention of many due to its sheer size. A 912-page hardback, it will test the wrists of many readers (although probably not those who recently devoured Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport). The Guardian even published a guide to reading it earlier this week.

Despite its heft, however, reviews of The Mirror and the Light thus far have been almost universally positive. The Independent calls it a “masterpiece”; The Guardian says it “continues, deepens, and revises its forebears,” and that Mantel is “still exuberantly rethinking what novels can do.” Daily Mail review warns, however, that it “could break the hearts of ardent Mantelites by not quite living up to the nigh-on impossibly high standards she set with the last two.”

Those Mantelites will be eagerly hoovering up all 912 pages next weekend (I’ve blocked out my diary for a 48-hour binge). Because even 500 years on, some stories—or maybe the way they are told—are as compulsive as ever.



*Or “Cremuel”, as certain monarchs might have it…

Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.