At War with a Book

Hilary Mantel's "The Mirror & The Light"
Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror & The Light”

The figure mocks me.


53 percent.

The eReader reports I have read 53 percent of Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror & The Light.”

That translates to a little more than half, about 415 pages of a 784-page book.

The problem: I started reading this tome on March 10, the day it was released.

The long-awaited conclusion to Mantel’s trilogy of novels about the life of Thomas Cromwell, chief advisor to King Henry VIII, picks up just after the execution of Queen Anne Boleyn and follows Cromwell in his final months, to his own bloody end at Tower Hill.

I loved Mantel’s first two installments, “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies.”

I raced through them. These are books rich in memorable characters, details and incidents, with a fresh take on familiar history. Highly recommended.

I pre-ordered “The Mirror & The Light” as soon as it was offered.

I started reading the day it was delivered.

I can find only one fault with the novel.

It’s. Just. So. Damn. Boring.

In her final book, with so much incident to cover, Mantel inexplicably treats us to numerous flashbacks to Cromwell’s boyhood days.

That seems like material that might have worked better, I don’t know, in the first book.

Then there are Cromwell’s endless conversations with his interchangeable proteges. His many dinners with French ambassador Chapuys. “Do try the strawberries, old chap.” (Not an actual line of dialogue, but could well have been.)

Oh, wait. Something interesting is happening: new Queen Jane is shocking the court by advocating for the poor. Nah. Never mind. That moment passes.

I can’t tell you the number of times I took my eReader out onto my deck, read a few screens, and nodded off so completely.

I’ve tried. I’ve tried so hard with this book. Partly because I so thoroughly enjoyed her first two installments, I felt I owed it to Mantel and myself to slog through the interminable prose.

Every weekend I make a list of chores for myself, and every weekend, I would list, “Finish Mantel,” right after laundry and vacuuming, because that’s what this became, a chore, a duty, a test of endurance.

Mind you, I was reading other things on the side – tearing through other short story collections, novels, and nonfiction works. It sort of felt like having your ice cream before the tonsillectomy.

But this would be it! This would be the weekend I would finish it!

The novel just has to get better, right?

Then I asked myself a question: When has a book I’ve hated ever gotten better?

When has my time and patience ever been rewarded by forcing myself to crawl to the last page of an interminable tract?

Never. Not once.

That realization gave me the clarity to accept that this book and I are just not clicking. And I’m not fighting it any longer.

This book is closed for good.

2 thoughts on “At War with a Book

  1. Brian Dean Powers

    Giving up on a book feels like literary heresy to me, but I’ve learned to do it. For example, I tried many times to read TO THE LIGHTHOUSE, but couldn’t get beyond a few pages. I recently gave the book to the local thrift shop.


  2. Brian, it’s fascinating that so many of us who love writing internalize the idea that there must be something wrong with us if we don’t like a book, as if somehow it’s our failure. I’ve come to the idea of re-casting the act of giving up on a book as a victory for myself – more time to discover works I will enjoy.


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