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Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing from the London Review of Books

Review

Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing from the London Review of Books

I can just see them now: hardcore, lifelong, dedicated bibliophiles --- people who don’t merely read books, but who also read books about books --- rolling their eyes and perhaps emitting small sympathetic sounds, all because my first reaction to MANTEL PIECES was “Hilary Mantel, where have you been all my life?”

How could I have read about topics far and wide for all of my adulthood and not encountered this extraordinary British wordsmith who has created more than a dozen landmark fictional works and numerous essays for the London Review of Books over the past 30-plus years? A double winner of the Man Booker Prize, and deservedly acclaimed for bestsellers such as the recently completed Wolf Hall Trilogy, Mantel has proven beyond a doubt that she literally owns the genre of historical fiction.

An astute comment by a friend (who didn’t author-shame me for not knowing about her) reveals much about why Mantel’s name is front and center in these strange global times: “Hilary makes historical fiction a thing, something you really want to read; she gets the small things right.” And when I eventually catch up on my deprived cultural life by reading some of Mantel’s previous work, I have no doubt I’ll find her passions for authentic detail and deeply informed speculation just as persuasive as I’ve found them in MANTEL PIECES, which brilliantly introduces new fans to her astonishing breadth of interests.

"This anthology of more than 40 pieces...captures Mantel’s remarkable career to date, not in a nostalgic or retrospective way, but in a series of small and large literary explosions that collectively cleanse and brighten both mind and spirit."

This anthology of more than 40 pieces --- essays, reviews, reflections and correspondence --- captures Mantel’s remarkable career to date, not in a nostalgic or retrospective way, but in a series of small and large literary explosions that collectively cleanse and brighten both mind and spirit. That may seem a vast description for items usually written to deadline for particular occasions, such as book releases or news events, but their very timelessness within the traditionally short-lived character of journalism speaks to something very special in the way Mantel approaches her subject material.

That’s where my friend’s comment on detail, on getting “the small things right” and then sculpting the exact verbal nuance in which to express them, genuinely hit home for me.

Through subjects as diverse as the French Revolution, the last convicted witch in Britain, child murderers of children, the long historical shadow cast by a forgotten Tudor matriarch, public fascination with “royals,” a compelling personal hospital journal, and much more, Mantel’s vivid and often visceral command of language interweaves with the diligent and often exhausting research that flows so close to the surface on every page.

While each essay and review was replete with “aha moments” that deepened my knowledge of subjects or events that I thought (wrongly) I knew something about, I couldn’t help feeling both humbled and impressed by Mantel’s most personal piece.

In MEETING THE DEVIL (2010), she doggedly chronicled myriad images --- real, surreal and somewhere in between --- that flooded her mind (often semi-consciously) as she recovered from major abdominal surgery necessitated by chronic endometriosis, one of the cruelest and most debilitating conditions afflicting women.

There is a riveting in-the-moment quality to her writing that captures vulnerability and courage interacting in very close quarters, sometimes dancing in an ethereal balance, sometimes groveling in the painful desperation of navigating to the bathroom. As a former volunteer hospital chaplain, I regret not having read such a reflection many years ago, but revelations like this come better late than never.

Another element that takes MANTEL PIECES to a level far beyond most literary anthologies is a series of interspersed correspondence pieces, some just quick scribbled notes, between Mantel and her long-time LRB editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers. And here’s where I could really “identify.”

Time after time, she graciously begs Wilmers for a few more days or weeks to complete an ambitious assignment (and gets it!). And right at the outset she confesses that she is completely untrained as a book reviewer, though no one could have learned on-the-job as quickly or as consummately as she did.

While sharing those two situations in my own experience with Bookreporter, I know that I will never produce something as richly rewarding, informative or provocative as MANTEL PIECES. But that’s perfectly okay. After all, there is only one Hilary Mantel, and long may she reign.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch on December 4, 2020

Mantel Pieces: Royal Bodies and Other Writing from the London Review of Books
by Hilary Mantel

  • Publication Date: October 6, 2020
  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Fourth Estate
  • ISBN-10: 0008429979
  • ISBN-13: 9780008429973