Readers who were entranced, as I was, by Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies may be interested in discovering her earlier fiction, which her publisher has decided to reissue and repromote.
The blurb on the back of Every Day is Mother’s Day is – as happens more and more… do these blurb-writers ever read beyond the opening pages… ? – misleading, focusing exclusively as it does on the dotty Evelyn Axon and her mysteriously pregnant, educationally subnormal daughter, Muriel, holed up in a dank old house full of rubbish and, it seems (to Evelyn at least), evil spirits. But Evelyn and Muriel share centre stage with Colin, a schoolteacher, his wife Sylvia and their three slightly brattish kids, as well as Colin’s spinster sister, Florence. Florence, it transpires, is the Axons’ neighbour, while Colin’s mistress, Isabel, is their social worker. The characters are unpleasant to varying degrees, and often grotesque. As well as cruel, dishonest and manipulative. And wretchedly unhappy.
The central episode of the novel (as I read it) is a hilariously farcical dinner party thrown by Colin’s head of department, Frank O’Dwyer, and attended by a motley crew of drink-sodden snobs. Colin is humiliated and Sylvia’s dress is thrown in the dustbin. By another (awkward but clearly deliberate) coincidence, Frank has acquired the social worker’s notes on the Axons and plans to turn them into a novel. From this point on the reader is led to feel a minimum of sympathy for Colin and his wife (who is pregnant with their fourth child), given that, despite their failings, they have more integrity than the ghastly people at the dinner party.
For a first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day scores highly, and deserves to find new readers in the wake of Mantel’s Booker celebrity. There are echoes of Beryl Bainbridge, Muriel Spark, Edward St Aubyn, and doubtless Kingsley Amis, and it is clear that Mantel has done her background reading in English fiction. For sheer versatility and variety, she could easily be, in the words of The Guardian, “our most brilliant English writer”. I certainly want to read more, while awaiting the publication of The Mirror and the Light (the sequel to Bring Up The Bodies, which will complete a trilogy).
This was the first Hilary Mantel I read, having been intrigued by a couple of episodes I heard when it was read on Woman's Hour about 20 years ago. And now I discover that it has been the Book at Bedtime on radio4 for the last 2 weeks (no doubt the very same recording).
I thought I had started retrospective threads on about five of the Mantel books I had read before BGO existed, but apparently not, or they disappeared in one of our early breaks in transmission.
There is just one in this forum, on the darkly comic Vacant Possession, which is a shame, as I found her C20 novels varied and very enjoyable.
I have now listened to Bring Up The Bodies on audiobook twice . The first time was on holiday just over a year ago - in a cottage overlooking Kimbolton Castle (where Henry VIII kept Katherine of Aragon incarcerated). That added some piquancy to the first few chapters, but I'm afraid that holiday activities made listening rather disjointed and I actually forgot that I had read it - which accounts for this second reading. Wolf Hall remained more vividly in my memory, in spite of being read two years earlier.
This time I found it more engaging. I now have a much better idea of the cast-list than I did for Wolf Hall and some insight into Cromwell's character as presented to us by Hilary Mantel. The problem of 'he' has been addressed in this novel, having been expanded on many occasions to "he, Cromwell". This I found mildly irritating, having become used to figuring out for myself who 'he' was, but I hope it pleases those who had problems with it in Wolf Hall.
In Wolf Hall I had felt that Cromwell's support for Anne Boleyn was underpinned by a genuine belief in protestant doctrine and values, but that in Bring Up The Bodies his plotting and planning to help Henry rid himself of her was entirely political, and self -interest, as with the sure knowledge that if he didn't work against her he would surely go down with her. This made him a less sympathetic character to my mind - and more world-weary and cynical than previously.
Certainly Cromwell manipulated the 'evidence' against Anne's supposed lovers with a frightening single-mindedness, and I haven't come to a conclusion myself regarding which, if any, she had slept with. Not that it matters - if just suggesting the King would die one day counts as treason then the slightest word out of place could, and did, send anyone to the scaffold.
As for Jane Seymour, a pale, insipid slip of a thing - so different to the dark and vibrant Anne. Henry found her restful and innocent in comparison to his opinionated and demanding Queen.
Once Henry had made his mind up that he had been bewitched into marriage by Anne, and that she was cuckolding him and plotting his death with one or many of her admirers, there was little choice for Cromwell but to find a way to get rid of her.
I'm looking forward to the final book of the three, when the tables are turned against Cromwell .
A RL Book Group choice, this isn't the sort of book I'd normally go for, but it had me gripped. Alison is a stage medium with a disturbing past. She lives a sort of half-life on the periphary of both the living and the dead - or earthside/airside as she calls it. A set of strange characters invade her life from both sides - the fiends in spirit form, and her 'fiendish' professional associates. Mantel writes really well and maintains a tension between Alison's truly horrific past and the supernatural forces it unleashes, and the banality of modern life. I really enjoyed it, even though a couple of times I had to put the book down because I was too grossed out to carry on! Looking forward to chatting about it at my book group as there are so many levels and interesting subplots to it. Recommended!
Is no.2 Buckingham Avenue possessed? Is Muriel Axon a changeling as her mother claimed? Or is she merely deranged as a result of her upbringing?
Whatever else she is, Muriel is a mistress of disguise, and when she leaves the asylum she is driven to unimaginable lengths to get back her home and to get her proper baby in return for the changeling she floated down the canal in a cardboard box ten years previously.
Strangely, fate seems to conspire with her plans, bringing chaos into the lives of those who had been present at the pivotal moment in her life.
This is one of Hilary Mantel's early books, and is very blackly comic. Somehow she manages to perfectly balance those two aspects of the book so that I was appalled at what was happening to her characters, yet conscious of laughter bubbling up inside. Quite a balancing act.
Those who read this after they have read Mantel's autobiography will see where some of the ideas for this story were conceived, which perhaps adds a little poignancy to it.