The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel 4th Estate 4/5 stars Every generation probably feels its history is unique. The best historical fiction and non-fiction might be said to take issue with such pride, reminding us that even as we proclaim ourselves uniquely modern and completely special, we are nothing of the sort. Take the scene that opens Hilary Mantel ’s The Mirror & the Light : the beheading of Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII and England’s queen. “The morning’s circumstances are new and there are no rules to guide us,” notes Thomas Cromwell as he walks away. Anne’s death (or murder) does seem unprecedented, a “novelty”, as the poet Sir Thomas Wyatt puts it on learning of her somewhat botched execution. “A queen of England to behead and five of her lovers. A man does not do it every week.” That Wyatt, imprisoned in the Tower of London, is accused of being Anne’s sixth lover, adds sarcastic pathos to the seemingly cool witticism. Still, deposing queens is also becoming a habit with Henry, whose desperation for a male heir to secure the line of succession and consolidate his power defines his reign. Anne’s failure in this regard ensures she is as surplus to requirements as his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (Katherine in Mantel’s books), had been only four years earlier. And in case you think beheading trumps divorce (or annulment, to be precise), that particular divorce was the Brexit of its day: replacing Catherine with Anne meant replacing the pope with Henry himself as the supreme head of the church. The magnitude of these events, the ramifications of which rumble on to this day, go only so far in explaining why The Mirror & the Light is probably 2020’s biggest novel. It also concludes a truly epic trilogy starring Henry’s fixer-in-chief, Cromwell. Beginning with Wolf Hall (2009) and continuing with Bring Up the Bodies (2012), Mantel managed that most coveted of hat tricks: stellar reviews, vast sales and a cabinet stuffed with prizes. The most notable of these are an unheralded brace of Man Bookers , which has already made The Mirror & the Light the odds-on favourite to win this year. This is not the book’s only claim on bigness. Clocking in at 883 pages, its hardback incarnation has inspired guides to tackling such hefty tomes: take breaks, counselled The Guardian , consider putting the text on your phone and finally, give up. Quite what Cromwell himself would have made of such wishy-washy guidance can only be guessed at. A famously voracious reader no matter the length, he memorised much of what he digested: “He carries in his head the statutes of England, the psalms and the words of the Prophets, the columns of the king’s account books and the lineage, acreage and income of every person of substance in England […] The only things he cannot remember are the things he never knew.” Now 50 years old, Cromwell is halfway through his tenure as chief adviser to Henry VIII. Born to a humble blacksmith, he was a young tearaway before finding his calling in the law, and later politics. Cromwell’s rise is rivalled only by his ability to retain power while working for Europe’s most capricious boss (which in those days was saying something). This he achieved through a work ethic that would put most contemporary workaholics to shame. Rising at 5am to say his prayers, he is receiving petitioners by 6am, before boarding a barge to visit Greenwich, Hampton Court, the mint or the armouries of the Tower of London. Cromwell is also ruthless and coldly analytical. As he leaves Anne’s execution, he feels a wrench, not of sorrow or pity, but hunger: “A sharp pang of appetite reminds him that it is time for a second breakfast, or perhaps an early dinner.” In case you think Mantel has Cromwell confused with a hobbit, she inserts a plot about a youthful murder to set you right. By 1536, when The Mirror & the Light begins, Cromwell is working harder than ever, albeit in ever-decreasing circles: “His chief duty (it seems just now) is to get the king new wives and dispose of the old. His days are long and arduous, packed with laws to be drafted and ambassadors to beguile.” Even his nights are not free from toil. Cromwell is regularly woken by the king, who asks “questions about treasury receipts, or tells him his dreams and asks what they mean”. This work has become increasingly hazardous. The delicate, intricate negotiations demanded by both “separations” involve so many competing factions that the Protestant Cromwell risks catching himself in his own web. The endless search for Henry’s queen must be balanced by the two other sides of the triangle: religion and politics. So, when the death of wife number three (Jane Seymour) coincides with rumours of an alliance between France and the Holy Roman Empire, Cromwell imports Anne of Cleeves from Protestant Germany as wife number four. The bravura passage in which Mantel describes their unhappy, short-lived marriage combines misogynist comedy, as every courtier speculates on their sex life, and unbearable tension, as Cromwell begins to realise the magnitude of his political gamble. It’s bad enough that Henry doesn’t fancy his new bride, but when he casts scathing doubt on her virginity, diplomatic hell could break loose, not least when France and Rome fall out. With so much ground to cover, Mantel tests our patience as never before, in terms of heft and complexity With so much ground to cover, Mantel tests our patience as never before, in terms of heft and complexity. That she avoids testing us, too, says a lot about her prose, whose present-tense immediacy creates nerve-jangling drama. No matter how smartly Cromwell tries to predict events, he walks in semi-blindness along paths of eggshells, wondering whether the doorway ahead is booby-trapped or the means to salvation. If this is Mantel’s way of demystifying familiar history, she renders the general mood of paranoid plotting with supple changes of perspective. Cromwell’s quicksilver calculations dominate, but she can inhabit other points of view with disarming speed: on more than one occasion she has to clarify which “he” exactly we are eavesdropping upon. We could read this as clumsy failure of style, or the inevitable consequence of a feudal patriarchy that habitually uses, abuses and kills women: “What is a woman’s life?” Mantel practically yells halfway through, before describing the labour pains that delivered Henry a son but killed his third wife. “Do not think, because she is not a man, she does not fight. The bedchamber is her tilting ground, where she shows her colours, and her theatre of war is the sealed room where she gives birth.” For the most part, though, Cromwell’s is a man’s world, and he is in thrall to two men. The first is Henry, whose appetites and whims he observes and tries to satisfy as religiously as any of his wives. And like those wives, he eventually falls foul of his master’s unquenchable narcissism and desire for power. What impresses is how Mantel tracks the slow disintegration of the alliance through seemingly innocuous silences or praise bestowed on rivals, including Cromwell’s dead predecessor, Thomas Wolsey. The second man who dominates Cromwell’s imagination is his dead father, Walter. “You would not guess it to look at him now, but his father was a blacksmith; he [Cromwell] has affinity with iron, steel, with everything that is mined from the earth or forged […] or given a cutting edge.” This thought appears as Cromwell runs his finger down the sword that beheaded Anne, whose corpse lies nearby. It’s not hard to hear a foretelling of Cromwell’s own death, something Mantel honours when he faces his own executioner and hears Walter pass comically disparaging judgment on the weapon to be used: “Christ alive who sold you this axe? They saw you coming. Here, give it to my boy Tom. He’ll put an edge on it.” Moments like these do the near impossible and create genuine sympathy for the most unsympathetic of men. One could add Cromwell’s non-too-subtle nightmare of a cockfight in which “spectators roar and stamp” while “the dead cock is raked from the sand and thrown to a cur”. Perhaps most affecting of all is the passage in which the condemned man reads Erasmus’ Preparation Unto Death, and meditates on an engraving of Icarus “plummeting into the waves”. Cromwell considers the tragedy from the perspective of Icarus’ father, Daedalus. As they rose, “peasants gaped upwards, supposing they were seeing gods or giant moths”. Cromwell is much too practical, too human to fall for the myth. Instead, he imagines “an instant when the artificer knew, in his pulse and his bones, This is going to work. And that instant was worth the rest of his life”. Here, in one elegant paragraph is all his ambition and cruelty, his practicality and his blindness, his daring and failure. For all its longueurs, The Mirror & the Light is a fitting climax to a dazzling trilogy.