The View from the Great North Wood – A Review of “The Mirror and the Light”

The Covid-19 Lockdown means that reading is now, more than ever, a life saver. And books that once seemed intimidating, mighty tomes such as this are now just appetisers. Just think what we’ll know by the end of all of this..

After about 1900 pages of Wolf Hall, Bringing up the Bodies and now The Mirror and the Light, I imagined that turning the last page of Mantell’s latest novel, was similar to breasting the finishing tape of a marathon. Pride, satisfaction, disbelief, and memories of pain, struggle and pleasure. I’m still not quite sure in what proportions those last three are mixed.

The analogy breaks down almost immediately however, because, after a sticky opening hundred pages or so, I raced through the bulk of it, savouring every page. And, more to the point, the Marathon is all about the runner’s experience, the course itself just exists. But the reader’s experience, regardless of their personal response to it, is of a magnificent, towering achievement. There are passages of sublime beauty and power, and it drags you along, careering towards the inevitable end. It is a mighty work and will almost certainly pick up the Booker hattrick. The Booker, though, like all cultural awards, has never been an indicator of quality. Other factors cloud that judgement: The Zeitgeist. Timing. Events. Political correctness. Length. Subject matter. And on all of those counts, Mantell is a shoo in, not least because she has become the literary equivalent of Dame Maggie Smith or Judy Dench, a National Treasure.

Just to be clear about this, I loved Wolf Hall and thought Bringing up the Bodies was even better. I’m just not sure whether, in the end, all of those words were necessary. The main schtick of the trilogy seems to be, from Mantell’s many interviews, the idea that Thomas Cromwell was a working-class arriviste who needed to be rescued from the heavy hand of mainstream establishment condemnation. This was to be achieved by drilling directly into his imagined psyche and portraying him as a three dimensional, living breathing man of his time. This is achieved, but frankly that had been achieved by the end of Book 2 and I’m really not sure what this new one has added. Or at least, what it has added that could not have been accomplished in 500 pages. So example after example is piled on, accreting more and more detail. It’s almost Knaufsgaardian in its use of domestic detail. Many incidents seemed to be included simply so that Cromwell’s half of the conversations can be repeated later as evidence against him.

To this end, Mantell takes no prisoners in terms of the expectations she has of the reader. Hundreds of characters, many of whom have multiple names, come and go in scenes and conversations with little explanation. It is particularly tiresome when the previous book was published several years before. The list of characters at the beginning of the book is a warning of what’s in store. They will be, in most readers’ copies, the most well-thumbed pages in the book as the reader goes back and forth desperately trying to ascertain who exactly is Southampton, or Surrey or Wyatt.

To put Cromwell firmly centre-stage, he is always referred to as “He”, ostentatiously at times when he is sharing the stage with Henry VIII. Sometimes Mantell ties herself in knots maintaining this stylistic tic, while realising that she has to make it clear who “He” actually is. Hilary, love, its OK, we get it. We know you think that Cromwell is more important, more interesting than that King geezer. You really don’t have to keep going on about it.

The other stylistic quirk is the by now ubiquitous, terribly modern use of the present tense to make things more immediate, more dramatic. Generally, in the hands of lesser writers who have been advised by Boutique literary consultants, it’s terribly cliched, boring, inflexible and predictable. Mantell, in contrast, does it brilliantly. It does add immediacy and it does create tension when really none should exist because, let’s face it readers, we all know he’s going to die and how.

In the end, I just don’t think it’s worth it. More than a study of the man, it becomes a study of the religion and politics of the time. It’s a brutal, cruel, savage, amoral world, fuelled by ridiculous primitive disagreements over religion. Of course Cromwell is going to have his head chopped off because he is serving a childish psychopath who wanted to live the fairy story of Kingship and was going to scream and scream until he got what he wanted. And what he wanted was plentiful sex with a young sex nymph who idolised him and didn’t make him feel inadequate. He wanted to feel forever young and to show the world he was a thrusting macho proper man who could get a woman pregnant with a boy (because they were the only pregnancies that counted).  This was a world where Cromwell, in his many internal musings, could think that cutting off someone’s head with an axe was proof of the gentle mercy of Henry and the superior civilization of England. The more gruesome details of the vile tortures and methods of execution of Spain, France and The Holy Roman Emperor almost convince one to agree with him. Until you catch yourself, shamefacedly, in the thought. In the end, I was left thinking that too much time has been spent fetishising this dreadful period of English history, agonising over the political and personal nuances and rivalries at play. Brutal dictators deserve less of our attention

More civilized than thou?………………………………

The real interest is how things are still exactly the same, give or take the rack, being hung, drawn and quartered, or being burned alive. Boris Johnson is similarly childlike, petulant and wanting to be loved and for the true religion versus heretics, just substitute Brexiteers and Remainers. Dominic Cummings as Thomas Cromwell anyone?

This is a book that is definitely worth reading. It’s beautifully written by a writer at the height of her powers. There is much to enjoy and admire. It’s just not as good as the critics will tell you it is (probably without reading it, some of them), and the subject is not as important as Mantell has convinced herself it is. Why not read it and disagree with me? Let’s face it, you’ve got plenty of time in lockdown to do that. If things go badly, you’ve probably got enough time to read all three, starting at the beginning. Good luck

My Books of the Year, part 2

The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley.

This squeaks into the last days of 2019 as one of my Christmas presents. It’s been riding high in the best seller lists for a few weeks now, and I wanted to recreate Christmases of my youth when I would always treat myself to an Agatha Christie or an Alastair Maclean. They were the perfect books to bridge the wasteland years between 12 and 15 – short, immaculate lessons in plotting and manipulating an ensemble of characters. Foley was a Literary agent who has clearly learned the lessons of what makes a best seller. I was unsure when I started: there was a repeated phrase on the same page and I couldn’t think of a reason for that to have been done stylistically for effect, so I assumed it was a sign of a formulaic, crappy pot-boiler. The other black mark was the first person narrative, beloved of literary agents and consultants as being more intimate and immediate. So boring, so cliched , so wrong. But actually, in the end, that was me. Boring , cliched, wrong. And probably a little jealous that an agent can knock off a book and make such a success of it. Yes, they actually can walk the walk as well as talk it. I finished it in a day and a half and it’s an enjoyable read. It’s a variant on the houseparty detective novel. There’s a small group of characters thrown together for a few days, snowed in to their exclusive Scottish Highland holiday mansion, when one of them is murdered. It can only be one of the others whodunnit. The first person narrative extends over named chapters that cycle around the main six or seven characters and there’s a clever timeslip element to the structure. A snowy, scenic setting and some ghasty middle class yuppie type characters and a murder. I can see the ITV miniseries now. And, I imagine, so could Lucy when she was planning it. A nice festive palate cleanser.

Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk

Another whodunnit, but of a very different kind this time. This is a bit of a cheek because I’m only three quarters of the way through it (another Christmas present), but it was too good to leave out. This book is delicious. From the cover which is brilliantly, brutally Stalinist in its stark functionality, to the first person narrative (see above) which is an authentic insight into the mind of a genuinely interesting, unusual character, to the evocation of the freezing snow-bound wilderness on the Czech/Polish border, via the unravelling of a series of bizarre murders, everything about this book is a treat. The main character’s musings, as the story unrolls, reveal her thoughts on the poetry of Blake, astrology, militant animal rights, illness (Her “Ailments”), nature, children versus adults and much more besides. A short, lovely book.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

This was my favourite book of the year. If you want something that will wrap you in a warm embrace for several weeks, so that you eventually deliberately slow down to delay the awful prospect of it not being part of your life, then this is the book. It’s engaging, affective, moving, clever, thought provoking and entertaining. Its got a clever time slip element between the civil rights movement of the sixties to contemporary America, romance, and social commentary. It’s a straight 9 out of 10. Lucky you if you haven’t read it yet.

There were some Turkeys as well as Crackers…..

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent

I got this out of the library on spec, after having spent much of the previous year seeing its distinctive yellow cover in bookshops prominently displayed. It’s a chunky hardback with some hardcore recommendations on the front and back from the great and the good. About  third of the way in I thought I had discovered a  major new talent. The prose was extraordinary: sinuous, inventive, poetic, but unlike some of the more experimental writers around, Tallent seemed able to combine those figurative qualities with clear communication of meaning. He is particularly impressive conveying a sense of the rural location in woodlands by the California coast. But the last two thirds were dreadful, as it slipped into being a horribly exploitative book about male violence, power, child abuse riddled with cliches, improbable plot twists and action sequences. Avoid at all costs.

Lanny by Max Porter

I haven’t read Grief is a Thing with Feathers but was aware of Porter’s reputation. I started this and couldn’t manage more than about 35 pages. I’m a big fan of experimental, inventive prose, so don’t get me wrong and think I’m dismissing this because it didn’t tell a straight linear narrative. It just seemed to me to be willfully obscure and difficult for its own sake. Thankfully, I’m old enough now not to make the mistake of thinking that if  I don’t like a book then it means that the book is bad. The act of writing a novel is a labour of love, involving long hours of sweat and brain ache and self-doubt, followed by an agonising period of public exposure to possible humiliation. The book is not bad – there are far too many distinguished people who loved it for that to be true. It just didn’t speak to me. You might be luckier.

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

I’ve loved many of Faulks’ books in the past (Birdsong and Charlotte Gray are two of my all-time favourites), so this was a particular disappointment. This was a novel that was phoned in. It is one big nothing, that exists because of what he has done before. It would never have made it past any Literary agent had it been a debut novel. A complete waste of everybody’s time. Sorry Sebastian.

Mentioned in despatches

Honourable mentions must go to, in no particular order:

Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

The Mars Room – Rachel Kushner

Everything Under – Daisy Johnson

How to be Right – James O’Brien

The Overstory –  Rchard Powers. (although there were too many trees for my liking. I know you can never have too many trees these days. Except in a book)

So, what a year it was. And I’m already looking forward to the treats in store in the year to come. I’m depending on them, actually. The horror of the election result can only be managed by retreat into culture and pleasure. I’ll emerge sometime later in 2020, hopefully refreshed, re-energised and ready for the struggle. But not just yet.

The View from the Great North Wood – The Secret Commonwealth

Cultural musings from The Old Grey Owl…

The Secret Commonwealth    

 by   

Philip Pullman

This is the long-awaited second installment of Pullman’s trilogy, The Book of Dust, a sequence that revisits the fantasy parallel England of His Dark Materials. Anyone interested in children’s literature or the fantasy genre as a whole, will have been counting down the weeks until this release, such is the power of Pullman’s fictional world, and the impact that the original trilogy had when first published in 1995. Those original fans will soon be joined by a whole new group generated by the BBC adaptation of His Dark Materials which is set to air on Sunday November 3rd. The trailer certainly suggests that it will be a much more successful rendition than the ill-fated dog’s dinner that was the 2007 blockbuster starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Not that that would be too difficult mind you.

So Pullman is hot stuff at the moment. But what about the book? Let’s just get a few things out of the way first. Pullman is A Great Writer. His Sally Lockhart novels are glorious confections of London Victorian adventure mysteries, with pea-soupers and coal stained brick warehouses on the banks of the filthy Thames. Those alone would guarantee his reputation. But it’s the first trilogy, His Dark Materials, that moves him into the ranks of the genuinely great. Engrossing, believable, moving, challenging, Pullman creates a parallel world that is both restrained and oddly familiar. He asks big questions about belief, orthodoxy, law and punishment and democracy. But perhaps his greatest achievement is the creation of his central protagonist, Lyra Belacqua, and his invention of the notion of the Daemon, an animal- like creature that everyone in this world has as a lifelong companion, a representation of the soul, the quintessence of the individual. Lyra is one the most memorable characters in children’s fiction. In all fiction. Appearing first as an eleven year old girl in a version of Oxford University, she is resilient, loyal, brave, intelligent, and without any trace of snobbery or prejudice about race, class or gender. And she is one half of one of the greatest love stories ever told.

Dafne Keen as Lyra Belacqua in His Dark Materials

The first instalment of The Book Of Dust, La Belle Sauvage, featured Lyra as an infant, rescued from the baddies by Malcolm Polstead, an eleven year old boy. The second book moves us on twenty years. Lyra is now an undergraduate at Jordan College. Malcolm, is a University Lecturer. They both become caught up in the struggle between the CDD, the repressive state police, responsible for rigorously enforcing religious orthodoxy, and the liberal resistance. The struggle centres around the control of the source of a mysteriously powerful species of rose oil that is grown in the Levant (the equivalent of Syria/Turkey) Pullman uses this to reflect upon contemporary struggles between the West and the Islamic world, on the issues of religious wars, refugees, terrorism, populism. It dies s through the vehicle of a journey eastwards from Oxford, to the Middle East. The journey has all the elements of the classic adventure story: the main protagonists are split up and are all on separate quests to find themselves and to find solutions to their separate problems. Their journeys allow Pullman to paint a vivid picture of exotic lands, full of bazaars, train stations, cafes and markets, serially escaping dangerous situations, only to fall into more dangerous situations. It’s exciting and mostly well told. Pullman can still knock out a page turner. Mostly.

But. This is not a children’s book. It’s complex, dealing with real world issues of politics and prejudice. It is quite adult at times, in its language and depiction of relationships. It’s very sophisticated in the way it handles the growing awareness of sexuality of Lyra, following on from The Amber Spyglass. The depiction of a near gang rape is genuinely disturbing. Pullman himself would I think be quite pleased with that verdict. He has been very reluctant himself to categorise his novels as being for children. And there is a strength in that, because it allows him to break free of the constraints imposed by genre. The worst crime Pullman commits, however, is that, at times it’s a little ….dull. The political wranglings of the Pullman equivalent of The Vatican are arcane and convoluted, and I’d be surprised if they held the attention of many children. Certainly not the ones I know nor the ones I have taught. And it suffers, above all else, from the curse of the established writer. It’s far too long.

Weighing in at over 700 pages, this is a book that wouldn’t have got past the first fence had he been an unknown. That first book has to be absolutely tightly- wrought, like a finely tuned piano. Not a spare word out of place, coming in at under 300 pages tops, the draconian guidelines of publishers and agents at least produce economy and crackle. They impose discipline as much as formulaic writing. Look what happens when you’ve made it. J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books just kept getting longer and longer as no-one would dare to suggest to the behemoth, Jo, maybe you need to rein it in a bit, love. One can only be grateful that she had only planned seven of them. If she had kept going, we would have been at over the thousand page mark by now, no question. The same applies here. And this, for all its strengths and joys, is a little flabby and baggy.

I’m sounding very negative. It’s still a wonderful book and he’s still a titanic writer. The return of the Great Love, at least in Lyra’s memory and regrets, and the beginnings of a new love to replace it, is fabulous. Even so, it’s only a four star member of his astonishing list of achievements. And when you’ve set the bar as high as he has, that’s a little disappointing. If you’re an English teacher, or you just love books, you still must read this. And hopefully, you’ll love it more than I did.