Full disclosure: I fully anticipated that this series wouldn’t be my cup of tea, but having determined to read the entire 2020 Women’s Prize longlist (which includes the third book in this trilogy), I had to make my way through all three volumes. Here are some thoughts!
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Published by Fourth Estate, 2009
My rating: ⭐ ⭐
Mantel’s multi-award-winning trilogy chronicles Henry VIII’s desperate attempts to bring about a male heir, from the perspective of one of his most trusted advisors; the ruthlessly ambitious Thomas Cromwell, who endures his own meteoric rise to power, and spectacular fall from grace.
Let’s start with what I liked! It’s immediately apparent that Mantel is a very talented writer. Her prose is rich and poetic, engaging the senses and painting vivid pictures of the historic setting, with a fantastic eye for the finer details. The plot is intricate but skilfully handled, with Mantel capturing the many subtle manipulations inherent to the characters’ struggles for power.
That said, the book can feel bloated by these details, resulting in a novel that is very long and slow. With all of the main players being rich, self-important egomaniacs who care only about getting as close to the throne as possible, I found it hard to feel invested in the stakes. This is particularly true given that it’s the kind of book in which much of the action takes place ‘off-screen’, with the bulk of the narrative comprised of conversations discussing what has been taking place elsewhere. And while I admit this is unavoidable given that she is writing about real people, it is incredibly irritating how many of the characters share the same few names, making it tricky to keep track of who everyone is and how they fit into the bigger picture.
Overall, this was the kind of book that I could respect for its craft, but which never managed to engage me on an emotional level.
You can pick up a copy of Wolf Hall from Book Depository by clicking here.
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
Published by Fourth Estate, 2012
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
I enjoyed this more than the previous book! Covering a shorter span of time, it was considerably easier to keep track of the various threads and characters, and it felt like the narrative was gathering some steam. Though not a slim or pacy read by any means, it’s also a fair bit shorter in general than Wolf Hall, meaning it doesn’t suffer from the same bloated feeling.
Mantel’s prose continues to be rich and inviting, and I thought the handling of Anne Boleyn’s character was a particular highlight.
You can pick up a copy of Bring Up the Bodies from Book Depository by clicking here.
The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel
Published by Fourth Estate, 2020
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
I must say, the way this final novel brought everything to a head (lol, pun) was very satisfying. It’s certainly the one that managed to elicit the strongest semblance of emotional investment. It’s a shame it took until this late in the day, but still impressive in its own way, considering I knew how everything was going to pan out.
I admit this is an odd criticism, given that the books are so heavily informed by real events, but I couldn’t help but find it a little clunky that each of the three novels essentially ends in the same way. Unavoidable given the facts, perhaps. Intended to reflect the cycle of violence that defines history, very possible. I do appreciate that Mantel had to adhere to certain details and divide the narrative according to natural moments of crescendo and climax. And yet, from the perspective of storytelling craft, something about it bothered me.
Her prose is at the height of its power, however, with some gorgeously evocative passages that continue to bring the past to life. Though once again, this has the side-effect of slowing down the pace and story progression to quite an extent at times.
Having now completed the trilogy, my presiding feeling towards it is one of respect rather than enjoyment. Mantel took on a series of complex events, populated by a cast of equally complex characters, and managed to consistently reflect both in a suitably intricate and nuanced way; breathing a kind of life into them that history textbooks never will.
You can pick up a copy of The Mirror and the Light from Book Depository by clicking here.
WOMEN’S PRIZE 2020 REVIEWS SO FAR:
1. Girl, Woman, Other | 2. Hamnet | 3. Fleishman Is in Trouble | 4. Girl | 5. A Thousand Ships | 6. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line | 7. Dominicana | 8. The Most Fun We Ever Had | 9. Weather | 10. How We Disappeared | 11. Red at the Bone | 12. Nightingale Point | 13. The Dutch House | 14. Actress | 15. Queenie