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Every Day is Mother's Day and Vacant Possession

By Drharrietd @drharrietd


Oh Hilary Mantel -- what a terrifying imagination you have! This pair of books, published ten years apart, must be among the blackest of black comedies ever written. In fact, whether or not you find them comic must depend on your sense of humor. If mental illness, damaged adults, depressed adulterers, and appalling children make you laugh, fine. But even if they don't, these are two incredibly powerful and brilliant novels.

I actually read them out of order, which mattered less than you might think. It certainly didn't make Vacant Possession any less enjoyable or comprehensible, as the events of the previous book are clear enough from the plot and developments of the second one. So Every Day is Mother's Day basically filled out events which were already familiar. But since it's the first one, I'll start with it.

The central figure of both novels, though in the first one we take some time to realize it, is Muriel Axon. She's 33 when we first meet her, and lives with her mother Evelyn, who is, or has been, a medium. They live in a large, once quite grand, house, which has been allowed to go to rack and ruin. Many of its rooms are no longer used because Evelyn believes they are inhabited by malign spirits, who move things around and leave her frightening messages on scraps of paper. Evelyn despises and fears her daughter, who she considers to be an idiot, in the fullest sense of the word. Muriel has had hardly any schooling, and Evelyn has put a stop to her attendance at a day-care center. This is largely because, as the novel begins, Muriel has been discovered to be pregnant. Since she never speaks to her mother, how this has occurred is a mystery to Evelyn, who spends a great deal of energy making sure it is not evident to the neighbours, or to the well-meaning social workers who periodically call round to attempt, unsuccessfully, to check on Muriel's well being. One of these social workers is Isabel Field, a sad, sensitive woman who is wholly unsuited to the job. Isabel lives with her frightful old father, who goes out and picks up hideous old women in the launderette and brings them home to sleep with him. Isabel is having an affair with Colin Sidney, who is unhappily married, and whose sister lives next door to the Axons....

Vacant Possession takes place ten years later. Evelyn has died by the end of the previous novel, and Muriel has been confined in a mental hospital ever since. Here, she has developed the skill and cunning which before she mainly used to deceive and confuse her mother. When the hospital closes down, the patients are released into the community, where Muriel decides to revenge herself on the Sidneys, who have bought Evelyn's house. Having no real sense of her own identity, she has learned to mimic other peoples', and has managed to create a facade of normality, which enables her to get a job as the Sidney's cleaning lady, heavily disguised in a blong wig and make-up, and calling herself Lizzie Blank, ''a person of strange diction and eccentric ways of cleaning lavatories''.  And from here she wrecks total havoc in the lives of everyone she comes into contact with...

Call me strange, but there was quite a lot here that made me laugh in a pretty horrified sort of way. Poor Colin, married to the completely unsuitable and unsympathetic Sylvia and desperately in love with Isabel, tells her that though he is often in so much despair that he thinks of suicide, he has devised a way of preventing himself, by playing Sousa marches on the gramophone: "you wouldn't kill yourself after that -- after you'd marched about a bit. It would be too ridiculous.'' Muriel's friends from the mental hospital, each with his own very strange quirk, all manage to keep themselves going in the world, one way or another, and display a kind of  crazy unjudgmental perceptiveness that reinforces Muriel's obsessive plans. "Are you mad, or stupid?", one of them has asked her when she first arrived at the asylum. "Both", she says. "Join the elite corps", is the reply.

In the end, though, it is Muriel who fascinates the most. Though she claims to be stupid, and is very good at pretending to be, she is actually something of a genius in her fearfully warped plans. Although we never discover exactly how Evelyn treated her as a child, Isabel describes to Colin a residential home for children with mental problems, and tells him that if babies are completely neglected by their mothers, they never learn to form any kind of identity or relationship with the world, clearly what happened to Muriel herself. You can't help admiring her, though, is a particularly horrifed way: 

 every action, however banal, opened into a shrapnel blast of possibilities; each possibility tail-ended or nose-dived into every other, so that there was no thought, no wish and no perception that did not in the end come home to its begetter.

I'm not really sure if I should recommend these novels. They are undoubtedly disturbing, but for me some of the most brilliant writing I've encountered in a long time. Not for the faint-hearted, but if you think you can stomach them, extraordinary and unforgettable.


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