This piece first appeared in the December 1, 2000 issue of Commonweal.
Being a lover of British fiction, my curiosity was piqued when the unfamiliar name of Hilary Mantel was mentioned with enthusiasm by Commonweal’s book review editor. The first of Mantel’s novels that I found was Fludd (Owl Books, $13, 181 pp.). The back cover told me that Fludd was about transformation, and that Mantel lived in England, was the author of eight novels (Fludd is number four), and had recently won the Hawthornden Prize.
At the first page I knew I had found something everyone who loves reading yearns for: a voice that signifies. I savored the sentences. In Fludd there are vivid descriptions, great turns of phrase, and an abundance of rich, dark humor. Throughout there is a feeling of foreboding; something ominous veiled just beneath the already strange events. I felt myself mentally squinting to see deeper into the ether.
Fludd is about religion, God, and human hope. The year is 1956 and the place Fetherhoughton, an English village whose oppressive banality is epitomized by Mantel’s description of housewives’ slippers. The charismatic Fludd appears at the village church, where the pastor, Father Angwin, has been resisting changes proposed by his forward-looking, vapid bishop. Is the new priest a secret emissary from the bishop, or from higher up?
To say Fludd is no run-of-the-mill priest is an understatement. Whether he’s talking to Father Angwin, who believes in the church but not God, or to Mother Perpetua, the tyrant of the con- vent, or to Sister Philomena, who perhaps didn’t become a nun for the right reasons, Fludd’s mysterious authority makes itself felt.
Fludd doesn’t believe in the status quo. He explains to Sister Philomena, “There are times in life when you must murder the past. Take a hatchet to what you used to be. Ax down the familiar world. It’s hard, very painful, but it is better to do it than to keep the soul trapped in circumstances it can no longer abide. It may be that we had a way of life that used to satisfy us, but it does so no more; or a dream which has soured by long keeping, or a pleasure which has become habit. Outworn expectations, Sister, are a cage in which the soul rots away, like a mangy beast in a menagerie.”
After reading Fludd, I hunted for the rest of Mantel’s novels. I’ve got them all now and am reading them in chronological order (a Christmas present to myself!). Here’s a report from my reading to date.