In praise of Hilary Mantel

Hello, friends! This summer, while on vacation, I wandered into Armchair Books, the lovely independent bookstore in Whistler, BC. (It’s a great bookstore – well-curated, friendly staff who are happy to special-order for you, and they have a ladder that slides along the wall on a rail, so you can reach the really high shelves!) I wasn’t looking for anything in particular and ended up buying Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, purely because the first paragraph bowled me over.

I normally have a thing about reading books out of order (Bring Up the Bodies is the continuation of, but not really a sequel to, Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning Wolf Hall), but it was so good I couldn’t stop. I read it obsessively, delightedly, and frequently gasping with admiration for Mantel as a writer.

There’s been a great deal said about Bring Up the Bodies, obviously, but today I want to talk about three things that particularly struck me (continue to strike me, since I’m now reading Wolf Hall and savouring every last sentence) about Mantel’s writing. These are things that really set the books apart from me, and have me determined to read Mantel’s entire body of work and to pray for her continued good health for many decades to come.

1. She writes in the continuous present tense (unless her protagonist, Cromwell, is remembering something from his past). This seems like an obvious point, but the effect is of extraordinary immediacy. You’re right there, in medias res, and it never ceases. However, pulling this off through a big fat novel is so hard to do, I can’t even…

2. She eschews self-consciously poetic language. Mantel isn’t a “beautiful” writer, in the sense that her prose is larded with metaphor and excess padding. But her choice of words is exquisitely direct, and she knows that less is more. The pared-down quality of her prose is, instead, poetic.

3. She is a master of understatement. She doesn’t spell out a single thing unless it’s absolutely essential. Significant things happen in the interstices. The reader gets it. And it’s all the more powerful because it hasn’t been announced, parsed, and summarized.

If it’s not already glaringly obviously, I would love to write this well, one day. In the meantime, I’ll work away at my own books, read others, and gloat over the fact that the world contains books this astonishingly great.

What have you read recently that blew your mind? What, specifically, did you admire about it?

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4 Responses to “In praise of Hilary Mantel”

  1. Pam Mingle says:

    I completely agree with you! I dug into my copy on vacation in June, and all I wanted to do was read! Her complex and fascinating Cromwell makes me hunger for (and dread) the final installment of the story.

  2. I absolutely adored WOLF HALL (and cried so much) and bought BRING UP THE BODIES as soon as it came out in HC, but when the very first paragraph made me cry, I had to put it down. I’m still working up the strength to face it. I know it will be uniquely gorgeous and addictive and heartbreaking.

  3. Sharni says:

    Alright, I know this comment has nothing to do with your post but I really need to ask. When does the last book in the Mary Quinn series come out? I’ve looked everywhere for a publishing date and have had no luck, therefore I have concluded you haven’t announced it yet. I say this in the nicest possible way, but YOU ARE KILLING ME! I really want to know how the series ends! I love you as an author and I love love love Mary and James and all their adventures together. Please end my suffering soon.


    P.S. Please let the date be kind.

  4. Ying says:

    Argh, I failed to reply to comments for ages! So sorry, Pam and Sonia and Sharni. Pam and Sonia, I just finished Wolf Hall and I’m so sorry I read out of order. I thought it wouldn’t matter in the same way (after all, we know what happens with all the wives!) but it does, it does. I think I need to go back now and re-read Bring Up the Bodies. Sonia, I hope you find the strength soon. It will be so worthwhile. And Sharni, I’m afraid I have bad news: I’m still writing Rivals, which means that it won’t be out for at least a year. I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I love your enthusiasm and I just hope you find the wait worthwhile.

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