Mantel’s Magical Writing

Great Britain, Reading & Writing

The first book I read by Hilary Mantel was ‘Eight Months On Gaza Street’, a brilliantly disturbing account of a woman’s time in Saudi Arabia and the clash between her beliefs and those of her Arabic neighbours. It was short, tense and oddly disturbing. Her double-Booker winning Thomas Cromwell story has yet to be finished, with ‘The Mirror and the Glass’ due to make it one of the most monumental trilogies in the English language.

This is fiction as total immersion, so stunningly realised that it almost seems a feat of the supernatural. Throughout her career Mantel has drawn on elements of her life, melding them seamlessly with her fiction. Reading about her background and comparing the books you can see where factual material becomes useful grist.

But the real mystery is the spark of life she brought to ‘Wolf Hall’, and how she has brought history entirely to life from every angle, so that the fictional elements (she can’t possibly know about Cromwell’s conversations) meld perfectly with the known facts.

The other day I gave a talk to a writing group and the question of balancing art and craft came up, as it always does, but when you get to Mantel you reach something genuinely inexplicable; the lightning of creation that draws out something precious and utterly unique. I want to know; how did she do it? How could she step inside this man’s body and so completely inhabit him?

Some female crime authors make the fundamental mistake of letting their male protagonists deal too frequently with their emotions. If you’ve ever met someone working in law enforcement, you know how strangely disconnected they can be from emotion, and it’s not believable to have a policeman worry excessively about what others might think. Mantel has always been an unsentimental, slightly unemotional writer – I think until ‘Beyond Black’, a book almost entirely about emotions.

She understands Cromwell to the point where it is impossible to see the trick. And yet in this vast exploration of one man’s world she somehow manages to hold back his soul from our gaze, so that something remains unknowable. Cromwell is criticised by others so that we can see his difficult side, but he’s the calm centre around which all of the kingdom’s intrigues revolve.

The middle volume is full of ghosts; past sorrows returning to haunt the present. We know all too well where this plot is taking us; the tragedies are lying in wait, but it’s the constant collision of these forceful, dangerous characters, their alliances and enmities, that will keep the journey so enthralling to what will doubtless be a devastating conclusion.

6 comments on “Mantel’s Magical Writing”

  1. Alison says:

    You put it superbly: I love crime fiction but do get irritated with the way some women insist on making their men a little too touchy-feely; by the same token, some also have a habit of trying to make their women characters excessively unfeeling – it’s a hard middle ground.

    But as for Mantel: I admit that I had to work hard at ‘Wolf Hall’ at least to start with, maybe because you just don’t run across that standard of writing very often and you have to shift up a gear to really understand it – but my word, what an incredible book. It’s hard sometimes to even think of it as ‘fiction’ – surely she was there? Surely she was Cromwell? Superb, superb writing, and she deserves all the plaudits coming her way.

  2. Bob Low says:

    It’s great that Hilary Mantel is finally getting the recognition she has long deserved-I’ve loved her writing since she succeeded Peter Ackroyd as the Spectator’s film critic in the eighties.’Beyond Black’ should have won the Booker-it was a brilliant, intelligent melding of literary and genre fiction, which reminded me, as I was reading it, of something Admin wrote in one of his magazine articles at the time-it might have been in ‘The Edge’-about how there were still great horror novels being published, but just not categorised as ‘horror’. I’ve commented before about how great ‘Wolf Hall’ is-standing back from it now, the only crticism I would make is that Cromwell seems to be a slightly more ‘modern’ in his outlook and attitudes than is entirely credible for a man of his time-but he is so brilliantly and vividly imagined, and also strangely likeable, that it scarcely matters. She also performs the magic trick of making us forget, as we read the book, that we actually know how it all ends-it’s like you are finding out about these people, and their lives for the first time.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Well done.
    I am only a third of the way into Wolf Hall, so it’s early days yet, but after reading the above I went and Goggled Mantel and found she is/has been a movie critic. A bit of the puzzle of her technique seems to have snapped into view: one camera (Cromwell), close focus (his eyes) and a few mid-shots.
    Before realizing this, I constantly had a thought in the back of my mind: “I Am A Camera”.
    So, with Cromwell as the “lens aperture” through which the reader “sees” the developing story, what she presents are controlled bits and pieces of his complex “daily” life with just the barest of physical grounding: Scene 110, the antichamber, later that afternoon, Cromwell speaks…
    Also, Mantel in her use of pronouns further distances us from the other characters and their actions, which creates/replicates the unemotional process of a crime investigator who is recording details.
    In Wolf Hall, it is early in “the case”, where all options are still open and anything may happen, but as this is noir” it will not be good. The suspension this time, not of disbelief, but of our knowledge of what actually will happen.
    I’m guessing Mantel has structured a three-book vortex into which she allows Cromwell to sink, while all of the other characters and their machinations spin about him until last the last the lens aperture closes and all goes dark.
    For hightened effect, I hope she will toward the end of book three allow Cromwell, and her readers, a bit more emotion, and thus a greater and claustrophobic sense of his end.
    Okay, what was in the coffee today. I’ll post before I reconsider.

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    Bit of rubbish typing up there, but i due at girls vooleyball in 30 minutes.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    I think Dan has what I missed in Wolf Hall, that is the cinematic presentation. That helps a lot. There are moments in Wolf Hall when you almost think things might happen differently until you remember names & dates aren’t going to change no matter how brilliantly Mantel writes about it. (Hope the volleyball went well, Dan)

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    Thank you for asking Helen.
    Yes, these 12 5/6th graders are doing so well. They won three out of four sets and led in a bonus-time set that was called for time. They’re the best in their league this time around. Their coach and this older guy are soooo happy!
    I am close to voiceless after a game. I have been the offical grandfather on the team for 5 12-week seasons. I wrangle wayward volleyballs, help set up, call lines, and pass out loud and soft praise. Life is good.
    Thank heavens my fine wife called down and told me I would soon have to leave and she did hoped I was dressed. Hehehheh. Nope.
    I’m still working on Wolf Hall. Let’s continue to dicuss.

Comments are closed.