The Mirror and the Light
By Hilary Mantel
Whew! I am exhausted…bereft…fulfilled. It's been long slog. I had set my reading goal for the year as 25 books. Then I started reading The Mirror and the Light. Having read the first two books in Hilary Mantel's trilogy on Thomas Cromwell, I could not forego that last.
But I knew it would slow my reading to a crawl. You simply cannot skim through this book and enjoy it. So I slowed down, and relished every word.
Mantel's accomplishment, in part, is taking an historical figure who has not always been seen in a favorable light and making him thoroughly likable, though very complicated.
If you don't know Tudor history, this book might elude you. I know English history passingly, including Tudor history (an absolute requirement for English majors reading Shakespeare's history plays). This book, and the two predecessors in the trilogy, added to my understanding. And sent me many times to doing a bit of historical brushing up--who was this character? what was this event? Etc.
This trilogy is a masterpiece of English literature. Not only is the sweep and scope far reaching (covering major parts of the reign of Henry VIII), but the depth and nuance of the narrative technique is singular. Mantel tells Thomas Cromwell’s story in present tense, even as she switches back and forth in time. Memory is a strong component of the work, as we learn many circumstances of Cromwell’s rise to power via his own ruminations considering his personal history.
With this book the third in the trilogy, we move from the execution of Anne Boleyn to the eventual death of Thomas Cromwell. The novel slowly builds to the inevitable conclusion, that we know historically. Knowing the dénouement in no way robs this book of its tension.
At the outset of the novel, Cromwell witnessed the execution of Anne Boleyn, Henry’s second wife—it was Cromwell who accomplished the setting aside of Katherine, Henry’s first wife making the marriage to Anne Boleyn possible. That alone is a harbinger of the inevitable turn of the wheel of fortune. Yet, at the outsight of The Mirror and the Light, Cromwell is at his zenith.
The novel slowly builds, with Cromwell’s influence unchanged…except. The slow unraveling bit by bit becomes apparent. Near the end of the novel, the reader can discern the palpable tension—and I had the urge to yell “THOMAS, PAY ATTENTION! They’re out to get you.”
Part of the mastery of Mantel’s writing is that there is an almost imperceptible change in tone. As reader, you can see coming what Thomas does not. And when he finally does see that his enemies are building towards his being cast down, he still tries to work his magic.
The title—The Mirror and the Light—refers to a comment Cromwell makes to Henry VIII: “ the mirror and the light of all other kings and princes in Christendom.” Yet, the interplay between mirror and light shifts—sometimes it seems Henry is the reflection. Of course, Cromwell has made his comment as an obsequious complement to Henry, meant to assuage Henry’s jealousy that Cromwell might presume himself to be more important than Henry. It was precisely that fear in Henry that gave Cromwell’s enemies the means whereby to drive the wedge between monarch and minister leading to Cromwell’s own beheading.
Born a Crime
By Trevor Noah
This engaging account by Trevor Noah of his childhood, and coming of age, is charming, sobering, enlightening and at times frightening.
The title refers to the fact that his mother was a black South African, and his father a white Swiss national--during apartheid when it was a crime for a black person and a white person to have sexual intercourse, much less bear a child out of that union.
Trevor Noah writes informatively of what it was like to grow up among several worlds--the black world epitomized in the various townships; the white world by virtue of his mother's working as a domestic for white families, and also the few contacts with his father. And also the colored world. The absurd division of humanity into various classes was a hallmark of apartheid South Africa. He explains that you could be classified (with official documents) as colored one day and then white another. (The reader should understand that colored was not nomenclature for a child produced from a black/white union, but rather a separate "class" of humans with varying backgrounds.)
The wonder is that Trevor Noah grew up, survived, functioned, learned, and emerged as the bright young man he is.
By John Pipkin
First, I did learn several things of historical interest and value. E.g. David Henry? Who knew?
Second, I have a favorite character--as well as reactions to other characters. My favorite--Oddmund. Aka Odd. The abbreviation is very telling.
Reactions to other characters--
Eliot--what a pain. Although, he redeems himself at the end.
Henry David--hmmm. Not sure what to say. I found him to be dithery. I really expected "an unexamined life" to be worked in at one point. However, the biographical background about this incident in his life. I love that he called Odd "New America." And his querying Odd foreshadows his own living in the woods.
Emma and her husband--the husband is, of course, a lout. Emma has her own survival story, as did Odd. Their pairing makes perfect sense
Caleb--wow! Gives real insight into some of the religious issues of the day.
Anezka and Zalenka (can't help but notice their names are A to Z).
Third, memorable interactions or themes.
The infancy of the country but with the view to the future where too much change occurs without thinking about it.
The story of immigrants--the hardships they endure and the reasons they left the Old World.
The undercurrent of same sex attraction being persecuted, and in the case of Oddmund's uncle--leading to death.
Involvement in civilization vs. seeking solitude.
FIRE--this is a huge theme. Of course, the woods being on fire. But Odd's father brings the trunk from the old country--proceeds to take items signifying attachment to the old, and setting them on fire. Until the explosion. Thus Odd loses his family. Of course, his reaction to the Concord fire is vivid--thinking he caused it, helping to fight it, warning the town about it, and "rescuing" Emma.
Caleb's lethal fascination with fire (and hell). His walking into the burning woods. And most appropriately Anezka and Zalenka rescuing him.
AND Eliot--his constant play writing, and the thought to end the play with a house on fire. The actual fire and his experience with it seem to be a purging for him that gives him some focus.
Not one of my "top ten books ever written" but certainly unique.