Once Upon A River is a self-consciously clever book, in a way I found very satisfying. It’s structured so the individual stories all grow and flow into each other like tributaries into the river it’s set upon, emotional undercurrents shifting and changing.
Stories are another theme, and the narrator’s perspective encourages us to view all the moments presented to us with a little scepticism; like we were sat in the pub the book opens in, listening to a story by the fire.
The tale they share is of a mysterious girl, who, after appearing drowned, comes to life, her identity a mystery.
Just like being swept along by the river, or caught up in a story, I found myself carried along from start to finish: it is totally immersive. There were characters I would happily spend days in the company of; the farmer Robert Armstrong and the nurse Rita are both original and compelling.
At the end, however, it felt like the spell broke: the story wrapped up and the river lost itself to the sea. I was released from the story without looking at anything differently, or inspired or motivated in any particular way. So while it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, it’s not quite 5* from me.
I had high hopes for this book, but in the end it left me a little cold. It’s psychologically astute, written in a refreshingly direct tone, and I also enjoyed the insight into the relationship between East and West Germany, as was. Unfortunately, I didn’t really engage with the characters or their stories.
I was drawn in by the line in the blurb: "what is left to five women when they have fulfilled their role as wives, mothers, friends, lovers, sisters and daughters?” It’s a good question, but the answer here still seems to largely revolve around men. Four of the five characters are either obsessed with a man they’ve lost, obsessed with finding one, or finally happy because they have. Even the fifth character, who I related to the most, seems to have her story skewed at the last moment so it was suddenly about her Dad.
The five characters are connected enough to lead you nicely from one story to the next, but I would have preferred if there were an overall arc connecting them all at the end. Perhaps I’ve been spoiled for this kind of book by the magnificent Girl, Woman, Other!
Buzz: Sunday Times Bestseller, Shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2020, Longlisted for the Booker Prize 2020.
Obviously, it was all a little too close for comfort, but just imagine if Shakespeare had been able to write about this period in history: Henry VIII parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. Oh, the speeches! The introspection! The misunderstandings and betrayals would be writ large, and there’s enough action to power through in full drama-mode. It would have been phenomenal. But it would also have been rather different, perhaps, to The Mirror and The Light and its predecessors Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.
High drama is clearly not Ms. Mantel’s style.
In theory, plenty happens in The Mirror and the Light. It covers the span of time from May 1536 to July 1540; key years at a time in history considered so dramatic it’s dominated the history curriculum, and the public perception of British history, for years. And yet, reading this book, it’s very easy to feel that very little happens at all, despite the hefty 882 pages.
This is because Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy is concerned with minutiae rather than the big picture. As is (her version of) Thomas Cromwell himself. One moment in the book when he’s truly emotionally stricken, for example, is when the daughter of his beloved old master, Cardinal Wolsey, accuses Cromwell of betraying her father. His grief is expressed through obsessively recounting precisely remembered data, and is somehow all the more powerful for it.
He thinks, I tried by every means to save my master…I tried by accountancy. Riche is wondering at him, but he cannot stop. ‘He said to me, this fellow, “The cardinal has owed the merchant Cavalcanti the sum of eighty-seven pounds, standing over these seven years, for richest cloth of gold at thirty shillings a yard, 311 1/2 yards: and of the lesser quality, 195 1/2 yards.” He said, “The whole order was left at York Place — I have the delivery note. The cardinal claims the king will pay,” he said to me — “but I think we shall see doomsday sooner than that,”’
‘Sir,’ Christophe says, ‘sit down on this chest. Using that handkerchief you may wipe your eyes.’
The devil is in the detail, of course.
And The Mirror and The Light is an experience of living in that detail. Like the best kind of foreign language course, this is a full immersion experience. You live alongside Cromwell; in his pragmatic world, sharing his perspective so convincingly it feels part of you. You can’t not feel a deep affection for him.
Even if Mantel did have a taste for high drama, it might not have worked so easily. When you’re writing about a time in history that’s so well known, there are obvious constraints on the normal story directions. Hilary Mantel couldn’t just whip this plot into a more dramatically satisfying shape. It’s not like the semi-fictionalised bio of some unknown that can be altered to fit a fail-safe narrative arc. (Add a marriage! Give him a near-death experience! Blend five characters into one, then make them a girl!) This whole Henry VIII bit is well known stuff, and every single character is meticulously in place and listed at the start. Besides, Mantel is on record saying how much she hates that kind of thing: like Cromwell, she’s a stickler for accuracy and detail.
But even with all that in mind, even given the constraints of recorded history, this could have been played more to hit the easy emotional notes. Cromwell’s eventual and inevitable betrayal and demise is…understated. Marvellously so. It somehow feels more like he was worn away than executed. (Although do I dare admit that my history is so poor, I’m one of the few —only?— readers upset by a spoiler of the end?) The emotional note it does hit is a low resonant one, rather than a high chime, and it lingers all the more because of it.
What’s even more amazing, is that while we’re knee deep in detailed historical occurrences, Mantel somehow makes this overwritten period of history suddenly feel wonderfully timeless — or even contemporary.
It’s not just about the choice of present tense, although that helps. It’s also thrilling to sit in a Covid lockdown, that Mantel could never have predicted, reading about the plague flaring and Amazon drivers — I mean “delivery people” — having to drop their packages at a safe distance. In The Mirror and the Light there are also drunken crowds that cause havoc in the name of getting England back to how it used to be in the good old days:
Now they go rattling through the streets, proclaiming the ballad of Worse-was-it-Never. There was a former age, it seems, when wives were chaste and pedlars honest, when roses bloomed at Christmas and every pot bubbled with fat self-renewing capons. If these times are not those times, then who is to blame? Londoners, probably. Members of parliament. Reforming bishops…Rebel ballads sung by our grandfathers need small adaptation now. We are taxed til we cry, we must live til we die, we be looted and swindled and cheated and dwindled…O, Worse was it Never!
And no, it’s not about pro-Brexit campaigners, however familiar it may sound.
As a forward thinking and deeply pragmatic statesman, it’s interesting to speculate on what Thomas Cromwell may have made of modern politics. But his concerns could have been just the same now as then — while we read about how 2021 is a record year for the UK beaver population, it seems Cromwell got there first; he too brought beavers back to British rivers, the original re-wilder.
There is so much to love in The Mirror and the Light, but its the whole, not just the parts, that make the full Cromwell trilogy the most satisfying, and beloved set of books I’ve read. I’m not sure I can pin down precisely why I love it so much, but I do. Is it the minutiae? The immersion? The understatement? The timelessness? Cromwell himself? Certainly, in its slow burn, deeply resonant and thoughtful way it sweeps you into Thomas Cromwell’s world, and that’s a fascinating place to spend time. A part of me wishes that Mantel just started writing at his birth and kept going, then I could happily live in his life, in real-time, in parallel to my own!
This brick of a book could be intimidating, and my main experience of books this length is often a wish that they were more brutally edited. I’m sure some will feel this is the case with The Mirror and the Light too, but I don’t think it could ever be too long. The sadness now, is that the saga is over and we don’t get to step inside this meticulous world again.