March literary madness: Hilary Mantel and Erik Larson

March 7, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, Women writers and journalists, writers, writing.

Two major literary events of the season are occurring this month: the release of new books by Hilary Mantel (The Mirror and the Light, due out March 10) and Erik Larson (The Splendid and the Vile, available now).

Mantel caused a sensation with her Wolf Hall, the first of a trilogy of historical novels that centered on the life of Thomas Cromwell, close adviser to Henry VIII (until he wasn’t) and one of the most important characters in English history. Wolf Hall won the Man Booker prize, Britain’s top book award, and became a successful stage play and ultimately television series (starring Mark Rylance).

The second novel in the trilogy, Bring Up the Bodies, also won the Man Booker prize, an unprecedented coup for Mantel.

Now, The Mirror and the Light, in its pre-publication state is gathering more rave reviews. Writes Alexandra Harris for The Guardian:

So the trilogy is complete, and it is magnificent. The portrait of Thomas Cromwell that began with Wolf Hall (2009) and continued with Bring Up the Bodies (2012) now concludes with a novel of epic proportions, every bit as thrilling, propulsive, darkly comic and stupendously intelligent as its predecessors. “Concludes” is perhaps not the word, for there is no tone of finality. Cromwell, Lord Privy Seal, deputy head of the church in England, chief minister, second man of the realm, Cremuel to the imperial ambassador, Crumb to friends, has a great deal of business to do, through 900 pages, before we contemplate endings. The heights of his power are all before us, and though he likes ladders and cranes of construction sites, for his own progress he prefers to think of wings. Source: The Mirror & the Light by Hilary Mantel review – Cromwell’s end | Books | The Guardian

You can read an excerpt of the book in The Guardian here.

Erik Larson always stays on the nonfictional side of history, and in doing so, he has placed himself among the best of today’s practitioners of narrative history (which include David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick). Larson’s mode is to take a well-known story or character in history and dig deeply into it to find another story, or dozens of other stories, that give us new insights into how we got to where we are today.

In The Splendid and the Vile, Larson magnifies the story of Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister and the family and advisers who surrounded him. Churchill not only had to defend Great Britain from the horrors of defeat at Dunkirk and The Blitz of London, but he also had to shore up the courage of his family and the British people.

Critics are already hailing the book as another of Larson’s triumphs, and has a short and enlightening interview with Larson, which you can read here.

Mantel and Larson are heavyweights in their particular classes of writing, and it’s always rewarding to see what they produce.

Illustration: Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in the television production of Wolf Hall.

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