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.