A triumph.

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THE MIRROR & THE LIGHT

The end comes for Thomas Cromwell—and for the brilliant trilogy about his life that began with Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012).

“Once the queen’s head is severed, he walks away”: With this perfect sentence, Mantel plunges into the scene of Anne Boleyn’s execution, and there’s no need to spell out who “he” is. On the second page, the executioner, who was brought over from France, refers to him as Cremuel (“No Frenchman can ever pronounce his name”), and finally, a few paragraphs later, when the swordsman is showing off the special blade he used on the queen, “he, Cromwell, touches a finger to the metal.” And we’re off, knowing that by the end it will be Cromwell’s head that rolls. (We can only hope his executioner will be as meticulous.) In the meantime, we get more of everything we’d expect from Mantel’s evocation of the reign of Henry VIII: power, rivalry, strategy, love, loyalty, ambition, regret, loneliness, lust—all centered on the magnetic Cromwell, a man who knows everything from the number of soldiers commanded by each nobleman in England to the secret desires of their wives and daughters. The narrative voice is as supple and insinuating as ever, but the tone is more contemplative—now that the newly made Lord Cromwell has attained the loftiest heights, he returns often to certain touchstones from his past—while the momentum drives forward to our hero’s inevitable fall. (Perhaps it could have driven forward a little more relentlessly; it does occasionally idle.) Cromwell has become almost a bogeyman to the people of England, and Mantel describes his reputation with characteristic dry humor: “He means to…tamper with the baker’s scales, and fix liquid measures in his favour. The man is like a weasel, who eats his own weight every day.” Mantel has created a vivid 16th-century universe, but sometimes it feels like she’s speaking directly to her modern reader, particularly about the role of women: “Try smiling. You’ll be surprised how much better you feel. Not that you can put it like that to a woman…she might take it badly.”

A triumph.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9660-6

Page Count: 784

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 25, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

LAPVONA

A peasant boy gets an introduction to civilization, such as it is.

Moshfegh’s gloomy fifth novel is set in the medieval village of Lapvona, ruled by Villiam, who’s paranoid and cruel when he’s not inept. (For instance, he sends murderous bandits into town if he hears of dissent among the farmers.) Marek, a 13-year-old boy, is becoming increasingly curious about his brutish provenance. He questions whether his mother indeed died in childbirth, as his father, Jude, insists. (The truth is more complicated, of course.) He struggles to reconcile the disease and death he witnesses with the stories of a forgiving God he was raised with. His sole source of comfort is Ina, the village wet nurse. During the course of the year tracked by the novel, Marek finds his way to Villiam, who fills his time with farcical and occasionally grotesque behavior. Villiam’s right-hand man, the village priest, is comically ignorant about Scripture, and Villiam compels Marek and a woman assistant into some scatological antics. The fact that another assistant is named Clod gives a sense of the intellectual atmosphere. Which is to say that the novel is constructed from familiar Moshfegh-ian stuff: dissolute characters, a willful rejection of social norms, the occasional gross-out. At her best, she’s worked that material into stark, brilliant character studies (Eileen, 2015) or contemporary satires (My Year of Rest and Relaxation, 2018). Here, though, the tone feels stiff and the story meanders. The Middle Ages provide a promising setting for her—she describes a social milieu that’s only clumsily established hierarchies, religion, and an economy, and she wants us to question whether we’ve evolved much beyond it. But the assortment of dim characters and perverse delusions does little more than repetitively expose the brutality of (as Villiam puts it) “this stupid life.”

A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

Pub Date: June 21, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-30026-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2022

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