2020 875 p.
What does one say at the end of this almost 900 page conclusion to a trilogy? Just as I felt at the end of reading War and Peace, how could it be fair to turn to another fiction book straight away?
I purchased this book when I realized that the coronavirus lockdown was going to extend for weeks, if not months. I had intended reading it straight away, having already read (and loved) Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but for the first weeks of the lockdown I felt too unsettled. Now that the doors are being opened again, and life is starting to resemble pre-coronavirus reality again, I realized that I might not have such an encumbered expanse of time to throw myself into such a long book and so I opened it up….
I must confess that I did find it hard to get back into, in spite of its compelling opening pages. That distinctive present-tense narrative viewpoint from a perch on Thomas Cromwell’s shoulder takes you immediately back to the earlier books but it still took me some time to get used to the “He, Cromwell,…” construction again. By 100 pages in, though, I was hooked again and found myself sitting up in bed at 1.30 to finish the last pages. How did Mantel manage to do this? After all, we all know how the story ends, and her fidelity to the history precludes any post-modern trickery at the end. You just know, through the consistency across all three books, that this is a carefully researched book and yet, with the exception of the occasional recitation of lists of food, Mantel does not labour its accuracy or parade her research.
While Bring Up the Bodies dealt with only a nine-month period, this book spans May 1536 to July 1540, starting Anne Boleyn’s beheading and Henry’s marriage to Jane Seymour and ending with Thomas Cromwell’s imprisonment in the Tower, facing execution. There were quite a few flashbacks, especially to Wolf Hall, in this book. I’m not sure whether that was to reinforce the unity between the three books, and to draw the narrative arc more strongly, or whether perhaps it reflected the tendency we (well, I, anyway) have with age to look to past events and now-absent people as a way of connecting where I am right now with the experience of getting here.
You look back into your past and say, is this story mine; this land? Is that flitting figure mine, that shape easing itself through alleys, evader of the curfew, fugitive from the day? Is this my life, or my neighbor’s conflated with mine, or a life I have dreamed and prayed for…
Within the constraints of the historic record, I loved the way that she laid out the narrative points so carefully. The trilogy starts and ends with the kicking he received from his father: this particular book starts and ends with a beheading. Very skillfully, she foreshadows the wives that are to come, after Thomas’ death.
Even though it could not have been her intention (given that she started on this project 15 years ago) I found myself drawing parallels with current day events. The acolytes of the mercurial, prickly clown in the White House would need every one of Cromwell’s skills of soothing, distracting and evading- and, as we have seen, many of them have been sacked when they failed. Dominic Cummings in UK could be perceived as Boris’ Cromwell: seen as too powerful by an elite disgruntled at his power who want him removed.
In Mantel’s unreservedly sympathetic rendering of Cromwell, the few places where he actually voiced his ambition to take over as vice-regent came as a shock to me. More dismaying was the clear maneuvering of the noble families against him, the betrayal of one of his closest associates and the manipulation of events that you had read about previously to be used against him. I felt sick with dread at the thought of torture, and the interplay between him and his inquisitors is deft.
I listened to a podcast where actors read excerpts from all three books. It made me regret that I always read silently without subvocalizing, and therefore missed out on hearing the beauty of Mantel’s language. I’m not a great audiobook fan, but if you had the long stretch of hours required to devote to it, this would be a beautiful book to have read aloud to you.
So, is it going to win the Booker Prize again? I really don’t know how you could go past the beautifully crafted language, the distinctive “He, Cromwell” voice, and the depth of research. Many writers have written of Henry and his six wives, but by shifting her gaze to the side, Mantel has brought us a new Henry and fleshed out and made human that square, dour figure at his side.
My rating: a big fat 10
Sourced from: Eltham Bookshop.