Hilary Mantel speaks to her past and to the world, with unwavering determination

For many readers, the portal to Hilary Mantel’s work is “Wolf Hall” (2009), the first volume of a trilogy of astonishing works about 16th-century fixer and enforcer Thomas Cromwell, who rose to power and then fell to favor in the court of King Henry VIII.

At first, prose lost its direction. You’re sinking into a distant past that feels almost real on the surface, but your perspective is misguided. (Mantel’s device in this book uses “he” instead of “Cromwell” through most of the narrative in the present tense, as a way to push the reader directly into the story, increasing the this initial uncertainty.) This is teenage Cromwell, running away from home after being brutally beaten by his sadistic father; Here he is a grown man, networking, conspiring and maneuvering his way through political intrigues and palaces.

Maybe you don’t think you like historical fiction. But as you continue to read, you find that you are hooked. The beauty of Mantel’s prose, her mischievous, unexpected use of language, the emotional resonance that weaves into the story – all of this drives you to pursue. It’s not just a story – you know it well, but it’s never been told as this before – irresistible, it’s that Mantel has an almost uncanny ability to make her hero concrete and universal. Dead for over 400 years, shrunk down to caricature like a thug and brute in the famous Holbein portrait that hangs in the Frick Museum, Cromwell here feels shimmeringly alive, rife with morbid thing.

But Mantel is much more than the Cromwell trilogy. There are nine other novels, which showcase her ability to write in a variety of styles on different topics and in different time periods. There’s a plagiarized memoir, “Abandoning Ghosts.” Her essay for The London Review of Books about the former Kate Middleton, then the Duchess of Cambridge, is a fix for the trivial circumstances that often revolve around the theme of well-dressed women. married into the royal family.

“Kate seems to have been cast for her princess role because she is irreplaceable: painfully thin anyone could wish for, not weird, not outlandish, not in danger of appearing character,” she wrote. “She seems to be precision-made, machine-made.”

Mantel is not sentimental, straightforward, not afraid to voice his sometimes harsh views. Her story collection “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” – its title story is the result of a drug-induced fantasy Mantel used to have in the hospital – caused a literary chaos. Lord Tebbit, a former cabinet minister, called it “A sick book from a sick mind”; There have been calls for the police to investigate. (For her part, Mantel said she was “perplexed” by the suggestion that “the police should be concerned with the case of a fictional assassination of a dead person.”)

Deeply intellectual, Mantel is also candid about her personal struggles – with poverty, with early career failures, with how people perceive her, with endometriosis. and chronic, debilitating pain – and rigorous self-assessment. Although the themes of women suffering from pain, isolation, and family fatigue recur in her novels, she did not make her own history the focus of her novel. her personality; She is not one to seek pity.

But it is impossible to read about her life without deeply sympathizing with her and marveling at the breadth of her literary achievements.

It was shocking to watch her speak face to face and realize how funny she was. When she won the 2009 Booker Prize for “Wolf Hall,” she joked that she would dedicate the £50,000 prize to “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.” Receiving the award again in 2012, for “Bringing Up Bodies,” the second book in a trilogy, she said: “You wait 20 years for a Booker Prize and then the two came at the same time. “

To me, her books show that great literature, a genre that requires meticulous craftsmanship and a deep understanding of human nature, can require effort from the reader. Mantel never spooned us, never made it particularly easy. She brings great precision to her writing, which at times feels opaque, and asks us in our reading.

It seems so shocking that she died. As her agent, Bill Hamilton, said upon hearing of her passing: “She has a lot of great novels ahead of her.” There is so much more to read, and re-read. But now I’m thinking about the poignant ending of “Mirror and Light,” the final book in the Cromwell trilogy. After the deaths of so many of Henry’s enemies, Cromwell saw that he would meet the same fate. In Mantel’s capable hands, this inevitable historical fact came as a terrible shock.

“He is gone,” she wrote. “He is the slippery rocks underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in his own awakening. He felt a hole, blinded, searching for a door: following the light along the wall. “

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