The strange and brilliant fiction of Hilary Mantel

So the novel begins: “When Mrs Axon found out about her daughter’s condition, she was more surprised than sorry; which did not mean that she was not very sorry indeed.” Mysteriously, Evelyn Axon’s daughter Muriel is pregnant, and “Her face wore an expression of daft beatitude.” Something is wrong with Muriel, but before we can work out what a visitor arrives, in dim autumnal light, at the Axons’ house in a suburban avenue of an English town. It is Mrs Sidney, who wishes to contact her dead husband. Evelyn, who is evidently a medium, offers her orange squash and the heat of a two-bar electric fire. Invited to talk about her husband, Mrs Sidney becomes distressed: “the scarlet line of lipstick above her top lip contorted independently of the mouth”. Evelyn contemplates her growing symptoms of distress. “There is, Evelyn reflected, a custom known as Suttee; to judge by their behaviour, many seemed to think its suppression an unhealthy development.”

This is the opening of Hilary Mantel’s first published novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day. Those who know any of Mantel’s backlist will recognise some of her hallmarks: the mix of banality and weirdness; the pitiless black humour (suttee, of course being the ritual of a widow immolating herself on her husband’s funeral pyre); the sardonic use of language. You cannot think of another writer who would put “daft” and “beatitude” together – the northern colloquialism and that religiously tinged word for being blessed. And then there is the supernatural. Evelyn believes her home to be haunted by malign spirits and the narrative adopts her mad certainties. Whole areas of her house have been abandoned because the spirits have taken them over. They leave semi-literate notes and mysterious tokens – a new can-opener in the middle of a room – as assurances of their malignity. She shares her fearful knowledge only with unheeding Muriel, whom we slowly realise is cannier than anyone knows and has something mischievous to do with the signs of haunting. The representatives of social services who visit the Axons occasionally, and see a truculent pensioner and her helplessly dependent daughter, may write long reports but naturally know nothing about why these women behave as they do.
Now that Mantel is Dame Hilary Mantel, and Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies have brought her fame, it is easy to spot the assurance and utter idiosyncrasy of this debut novel. It was not much noticed when it appeared but is now back in print in the slipstream of her two Man Booker wins. After years of relative obscurity, Mantel has box office appeal, confirmed first by the stage version of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies that ran for eight months in Stratford and London before making for Broadway, and now by a TV dramatisation of the two novels that begins on 21 January on BBC2. For many admirers of these later books, the territory of her earlier fiction remains unexplored. Yet Mantel is a novelist who has been honing her narrative skills for more than three decades and whose oeuvre is as rich and strange as that of any living British novelist.
TV is tapping into the enthusiasm of the common reader. Though there are critical non-believers, Wolf Hall and its sequel have found a huge readership, endorsing the judgment of the Booker judges (I am parti pris, as I was one of those judges in 2009). It is difficult now to think your way back to before the prizes and the acclaim. Wolf Hall was Mantel’s 10th novel, published when she was 57; not one of her previous nine novels had appeared on a Booker shortlist. Each had been a critical success; her stylistic brilliance was a secret to be shared by knowing reviewers and confessed by other novelists. She had fans, but a distinctly select readership. In 2005, when Private Eye lambasted the Booker judges once more, the absence from the shortlist of Beyond Black, the novel that Mantel completed before embarking on Wolf Hall, was given as proof of their obtuseness.
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