A Voice That Signifies

Hilary Mantel is a writer like no other.
Hilary Mantel, 2003 (Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Alamy Stock Photo)

 

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.

Mantel expresses with great clarity a notion about novel writing that sums up, to my mind, why she is a writer like no other.

Mantel’s first, Every Day Is Mother’s Day (Owl Books, $13, 225 pp.), is the story of sometime medium Evelyn Axon and her demented daughter, Muriel. It is also the story of social worker Isabel Field and her married lover, Colin. Much of what drives the novel is coincidence. Isabel’s father and Muriel both wander in the same park. Colin’s sister lives next door to the Axons. Isabel is the Axons’ caseworker. All the characters lead dismal, joyless lives. Throughout there are moments when things could go differently, if only...but alas, they don’t. The magic here is in the telling. Mantel’s style is at once macabre and matter-of-fact. Dark and depressing and depraved as the characters’ lives are, they are real. And funny. And (great to tell) surprising.

Vacant Possessions (Owl Books, $13, 242 pp.) is a sequel to Every Day Is Mother’s Day. Muriel Axon is back from having been locked away for ten years in a psychiatric hospital for killing her mother, Evelyn. Muriel is hell-bent on revenge against those who put her there: Isabel, Colin, and their families. Bad things happen and lots of them. Again, Mantel spins the tale with a deft and elegant dark humor. A drunken dinner party is particularly hilarious.

In Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Owl Books, $12, 278 pp.), Mantel’s insightful wit yields to a frosty cynicism. The heroine, Frances Shore, is a cartographer joining her husband for a stint in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Frances does not feel at home in the expatriate community nor with the locals nor her husband. Because she is a woman, and a foreigner, she can- not work, she cannot move freely, she cannot dress as she would like. The intrigue builds steadily as Frances acts out her growing alienation. In comparison to Mantel’s earlier books, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street lacks cohesion and a satisfying closure. Still, I swear, it is worth a read.

Mantel’s voluminous fifth novel, A Place of Greater Safety (Owl Books, $15, 749 pp.), is about the French Revolution. It is loaded with intrigue, historical detail, and Mantel’s particular brand of dark humor. In the last paragraph of the author’s note, Mantel expresses with great clarity a notion about novel writing that sums up, to my mind, why she is a writer like no other:

I am very conscious that a novel is a cooperative effort, a joint venture between writer and reader. I purvey my own version of events, but facts change according to your viewpoint. Of course, my characters did not have the blessing of hindsight; they lived from day to day, as best they could. I am not trying to persuade my reader to view events in a particular way, or to draw any particular lessons from them. I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide: anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.

 

If you are the kind of reader Mantel describes, do not miss these books.

Or, if you find that you have a literary sweet tooth this holiday season, Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s farcical In the Family Way (William Morrow, $24, 323 pp.) might be just the confection. The setting is a rambling, prewar apartment building in contemporary Manhattan. This is home to the wildly extended family of Roy and Bea, a bona fide earth mother. Aside from her family devotions, Bea runs a catering business and carries on with the building super, Dmitri. That’s okay because Bea and Roy are divorced (Roy left Bea for Serena, who divorced Roy for Bea’s sister, May). Everyone lives in the building and everyone is friendly.

So friendly in fact, that when Serena and May decide they want a child, it is Roy whom Serena approaches; he agrees after Bea approves. Roy simultaneously conceives a child with his young new wife, who finds all this togetherness a bit puzzling. And Roy is also soon to be a grandfather: his adult son, fathered in Vietnam but raised by Bea after the mother’s death, is expecting too. In the Family Way closes, appropriately, in the maternity ward, with all three babies making their entrances. What is a family? Here is one Upper West Side version.

Tags

Tiina Aleman, a poet and translator of Estonian literature, was Commonweal’s production editor from 1997 to 2019.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture