The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel – Book

The Mirror and the Light, by Hilary Mantel – NPR

The Thomas Cromwell that Hilary Mantel gives us in her trilogy, and especially in this last offering, The Mirror and the Light is half real, half imagined and yet he seems entirely real. Thomas Cromwell was the son of a blacksmith who drank. Thomas never knew when his father, Walter, would turn abusive and beat him, but he was always bruised and on the verge of running away. He grew up in a situation that could have led to a harsh life and an early grave. A few relatives intervened when they could and eventually he was given a place in the kitchen of a wealthy family. Then he, in a fit of anger, killed a boy his own age who liked to bully him. He did not intend to kill him and there was never a charge resulting from his violence. But killing someone changes you.

This third book in the trilogy has Thomas in his 50’s. He has succeeded in law, in business, and he has become the closest advisor of the King, Henry VIII. Henry needed to bypass the Pope in Rome when he wanted to divorce his first wife so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Cromwell, knew the sins of the Catholic Church, the usual sins of greed, gluttony, lust, and the scams involving the sale of relics and the statues that cried blood. He did not think the Catholic Church represented any true connection to God. It is the time of Martin Luther, but he is considered a heretic. Anyone who challenges the church in Rome is, by association, also considered a heretic. When Henry declares himself the head of the church in England, when he basically combines the functions of Pope and King in one body (his), Cromwell backs him up, and keeps sending emissaries into Europe to keep track of repercussions against England. Will the Catholic nations go to war against Britain. Cromwell also helps Henry break up the monasteries and nunneries and move their wealth from the church to Henry’s treasury. He also helps himself to some of the properties that become available and divvies others out to British royals and aristocrats. He is valuable to the king. He has become a very stable, organized, and talented man – and very rich.

Cromwell straddles the Catholic religion and the new religions that allow even poor people to read the Bible, now that it has been printed in every language. His mentor in his early years was Cardinal Wolsey, a Catholic who is turned out of all his houses and left, as an old man, in conditions far cruder than he is used to. Wolsey will not back the King’s divorce. He is on the way to his execution when he dies of natural causes. When Cromwell is asked to rid the King of Anne Boleyn, he sees his chance to also take down Wolsey’s enemies. He holds this grudge and takes his revenge. Killing so many courtiers though may lead to his eventual downfall.

Cromwell lives, in this third book, both in his past and in his present. Is he too distracted to make the decisions he has always made with confidence? Henry VIII is a very unstable king to serve. He imagines that he is still young and heroic, when he is actually old and portly, with a injured leg which will not heal. He looks in his mirror and he finds himself bathed in the light of earlier days (there are many mirrors in this book so full of self-reflection). He is shocked when his new wife, in a marriage that Cromwell helped arrange, cannot hide her disappointment that she will marry this old man. She is not as beautiful as Henry thought she would be. The marriage does not take and Henry blames Cromwell. He wants out.

At this critical time Cromwell has a return bout with the malaria he picked up in Italy and while he is ailing others in the council and the parliament creep in and influence the King. Cromwell is arrested and charged as a heretic who supports the church of Luther, and he is charged with treason because jealous men attest untruthfully that Cromwell wished to marry the King’s daughter Mary and place himself on the throne of England. Although Cromwell is guilty of pride and has feathered his own nest and enjoyed the advancements the King has offered, although he has his fingers in every British pie, he is not guilty, according to what records are available, of either heresy or treason. But the King is ever worried about betrayal and once he thinks you have betrayed him all your loyalty means nothing.

These books are a tour de force and I am sorry to leave the England of Hilary Mantel and Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s writing alone evokes the mid 1500’s in the reign of Henry. There is an immediacy in her prose:

“The Cornish people petition to have their saints back – those downgraded in recent rulings. Without their regular feasts, the faithful are unstrung from the calendar, awash in a sea of days that are all the same. He (he is always Cromwell) thinks it might be permitted; they are ancient saints of small worship. They are scraps of paint-flaked wood or stumps of weathered stone, who say and do nothing against the king. They are not like your Beckets, whose shrines are swollen with rubies, garnets and carbuncles, as if their blood were bubbling up through the ground.”

And this is just a tiny taste. It’s a long book, but since I didn’t want to leave it, the length made me happy.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – Book

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is the story of Thomas Cromwell, an abused child of an English blacksmith who ran away to be a soldier to save his own life, a choice that strikes me as an unusual way to save your life, but there were not a lot of choices then. He did much more in his travels than just soldiering and, by the time he returned to England, his experiences had turned him into a formidable young man. He became the advisor and confidant of the King, and held so many royal offices and honors that envy earned him aristocratic enemies who did not dare to act as enemies.

In Wolf Hall, named after an estate that actually figures very little in the first book, we find Henry VIII who wants to set aside his first wife, Katherine, the Queen, so he can marry Anne Boleyn, a woman with many seductive skills. Henry needs a son as heir and since Katharine has not given him one, he hopes the younger, prettier Anne, will.

England is Catholic and there are all kinds of problems with the Pope and  the Cardinals who believe the first marriage is legal and cannot be set aside. Cromwell has an ingenious solution to make this marriage happen, a solution that turns England upside down. Maybe you already know what it is, but you didn’t hear it from me.

The history of England has always interested me. My mother’s ancestors trace back to Shoreditch, which was an actual place  near London even in the days of the Tudors, so perhaps I am genetically inclined to be an Anglophile, or perhaps I am just a fan of royalty. But I don’t think the attraction comes from either of these passions. I think it has more to do with the longevity of British history. The nation is old, and the human kindnesses and cruelties get so exaggerated when a succession of kings and queens becomes the focus of both hope and despair for an entire nation, one generation at a time. It’s fascinating. All the best and worst traits of humans, especially humans with power, are revealed., but at a safe time remove.

If Mantel’s book, Wolf Hall, starts a bit slowly at first, it may be the pronouns that are at fault. It sometimes seems difficult to figure out the antecedent to “he” or “her or “they.” There are so many characters involved. Just don’t get hung up on figuring our exactly who is talking. The writing pace is quick and the pronoun trick helps speed things along. Stay with it. It does not take long at all to get your Brit geek in gear. On to Book 2. (It’s a trilogy!)

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – YouTube

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee – Book

There are not many family sagas that are non-European but Min Jin Lee has added Pachinko to the genre. Sunja Baek is the Korean woman that we follow to Japan. Hooni and Yongji are her parents, poor Koreans who carve out a viable economic space for themselves in the years just before the Japanese come to occupy the Korean Peninsula (in 1910, prior to Europe’s first world war). Hooni is born with a hair lip and does not expect to marry, but he has strength and personality. Yongji is old enough as a single woman to believe she will never marry. Sunja is their only living daughter. She is no great beauty but she has the allure of youth and she is pursued with some patient skill by Koh Hansu, who only visits Korea, but actually lives in Japan. When she tells him she is pregnant he offers to support her but tells her he cannot marry her.

Sunja and her mother run a boarding house for fishermen which is popular because her mother is a great cook. Izak Baek comes to their boarding house very ill, having just arrived in their village on the ferry. He is a Christian minister, going to Japan to take up a post in his brother’s congregation. He most likely has consumption (TB to us) and is not strong. When he learns of Sunja’s pregnancy he asks her to marry him and come to Japan with him. Sunja is reluctant to go because Koh Hansu lives in the very city where they will go to live but she has few options.

Sunja has a son, named Noah and another son named Mozasu (after Moses). Christians are outlawed in Japan and Koreans are looked upon as dogs so the family lives in what is basically the Korean ghetto. Sunja’s husband Isak is arrested and thrown in jail for preaching Christianity. His health problems make this particularly punitive for him. By the time he gets out of jail he is in very bad shape indeed. According to this author, the Japanese do not feel any foreign people are fine enough to be accepted by the Japanese people. This is the same attitude, seven decades later, that Sunja’s grandson Solomon encounters when he returns from school in America to work in Japan.

Noah, Sunja and Izak’s first child,  is actually the son of Koh Hansu. Hansu climbs the power ladder in Japan, but as a yakuza, so he is considered a criminal type, like a member of a mafia. Noah does not know this man is his father. Noah is very bright and longs to go to college in Japan. Hansu makes sure Noah is able to do as he wishes but there are repercussions and, in a sense, Sunja pays for her sins. The second son meets a Korean mentor who runs several Pachinko parlors. Pachinko is a game similar to pinball but it also involves gambling, so our equivalent of a Pachinko parlor is a casino. Many owners are criminals but Mozasu’s mentor runs his businesses cleanly. Eventually this second son owns three Pachinko parlors of his own and the family no longer has to worry about money.

This book covers the generations of this family growing up in Japan between 1910 and 1989. These Korean people never become Japanese citizens because, in fact, even if an immigrant from Korea does become a naturalized citizen, Koreans must carry passports from South Korea. The family may be fictional but the events they live through are not. This follows the form we are used to in most family sagas.

Sunja lives with Izak’s brother Joseph and his wife and it is the lives of the two couples and their offspring that we follow for seven decades and through two world wars. This novel requires an investment in time but the history covered is new to most of us and interesting because of it.

I listened to this book on Audible as I was able to use a credit to read it in that format without cost. The narrator had a clear voice but she was so sweet she did not always seem appropriate in times when life got bitter for the family. There is also some graphic sex in the last section of the book which seemed odd when read in the same tone as the rest. The sexual scenes were there for a reason but were quite jarring juxtaposed against the rest of the content. Even when Sunja had her illicit relationship with Koh Hansu the encounters were not at all graphic (of course Sunja’s experiences were in 1910 and Hannah’s experiences were in the 1980’s). Still I think if this was used as a book club selection readers would need to be forewarned about what to expect. Pachinko by Min Jin Lee is a book that is growing on me now that I have finished reading it. It is vivid enough to be memorable but has a sort of sparseness that makes it better as history than as literature.