Since the death of Hilary Mantel last month, there have been many words written and broadcasted extolling her brilliance as a writer. There is nothing new I can add to the eulogising, but to let the death of my favourite author go by without writing about it seemed amiss. She is someone I have mentioned in a previous blog as one of those authors who I admire so much that reading her novels is both pleasurable and painful; I enjoy her writing for its perfection and brilliance while knowing that I can never hope to put words together in the way that she did. But I would rather live in discontent in a world where her novels exist than live in a world of mediocrity without them. Reading her fiction brings the satisfaction of a good story well-told, and also the chance to witness a master at work. Quite simply, she was a genius.
I first ‘discovered’ her when I read Beyond Black, and knew instantly that it was absolutely brilliant. It is one the creepiest, most sinister books I have ever read. I love the combination of the mundane and the genuinely terrifying, suburban and supernatural rubbing shoulders in a way far more terrifying than any gothic mansion horror could create. The characters are slippery and unreliable, with the living just as untrustworthy as the dead. Evil lurks in this novel. It is unsettling, disturbing, but that is why it is so good.
Having read that, I wasn’t quite so enthusiastic to learn that the novel that followed it was about a real person from history who I knew nothing about. Who was Thomas Cromwell? Hadn’t there been enough novels written about the court of Henry VIII? But then I read Wolf Hall and I loved every word of it. The tricky thing with reading any historical fiction is constantly wondering where the boundary between truth and fiction lies, but I could feel the depth of research behind it; I was confident that if Mantel’s extensive research had led to her admiration of Cromwell, I could feel the same with integrity. But it is not black and white. By the time I read Bring Up the Bodies, I loved Thomas Cromwell as much as the friends and family that surround him in the novel do, but I also find him dark and terrifying. The way he goes after Ann Boleyn is calculated and guaranteed to succeed. It reminded me of a kimono dragon, that bites its prey just enough to poison it, stalks it while it slowly dies, then picks up its meal when the time is right. I don’t think Mantel could have written this without feeling it too. But that is the genius of the work, this creation of parallel opinions that both contradict and work together. When I finished The Mirror and the Light in 2020, (the best thing that happened during lock-down) I was utterly devasted and could barely see the words on the page through the tears as I sobbed my way through the closing chapter.
Since her success with the Cromwell Trilogy, there have been plenty of opportunities to read and hear Mantel speak about her work. I am sure I am not the only aspiring author to have lapped up her words, looking for clues to the magic ingredient that made her fiction so brilliant. Of course, her genius was unique and can’t be learnt, but some of the things she has said about the writing process resonated with me like a shared experience. For example, she once said “A book grows according to a subtle and deep-laid plan. At the end, I see what the plan was.” This is exactly what it feels like to me when I am working on a first draft of a novel, or even a second or a third. I know how a story is going to go, but sometimes is surprises me how it gets there. Not everything works out the way I thought it would, and yet when things change, I know they are right. In another quote from Mantel, “Not only did I think of it but it seemed to me to be true.” That sums up the alchemy of writing, making things up but at that same time feeling like they existed all the time, waiting to be discovered.
These comparisons between myself and Mantel are purely about the process of writing – I would never compare my work to hers. But I wanted to share these quotes because I am currently at this stage in the novel I am currently working on. Things I thought were going to happen are not quite fitting in, but I am happily letting it take its own course, trusting that it will reach the planned conclusion in a way that is better than I originally planned. Writing fiction is a startling and unpredictable game, which can be both frustrating and addictive. That’s why it was such a blessing to the world of literature to have an author like Hilary Mantel who could do it so well.