The first American edition of a 1985 novel, the debut – and first of a paired set (see also below) – of the versatile and inventive British author (The Giant, O’Brien, 1998, etc.).
The story begins and ends with a death, and bristles with a graveyard wit that’s most effectively balanced by Mantel’s scrupulous empathy with its several characters’ lonely and frustrated lives. Among them are widowed Evelyn Axon, a truculent professional “medium” who lives alone with her mildly retarded adult daughter Muriel and the supernatural “entities” she imagines capering menacingly through their house; the aforementioned Muriel, whose aggrieved, sardonic reflections on her mother’s complacent and unsympathetic world are quite brilliantly rendered; the social worker who aims to improve their lot; and the married man with whom she unwisely involves herself. The latter characters – wistful Isabel Field (who lives at home with her own widowed parent) and sexually beleaguered Colin Sidney, a history teacher and an embattled reluctant husband whose mother is a “client” of Evelyn’s – propel the narrative in continually surprising directions, as Isabel’s visits to the Axons, her trysts with Colin, and Evelyn’s mean plans to rid herself of the problems Muriel keeps creating uncover one level after another of relationships and affiliations among these people and such others as Colin’s sister-in-law Florence (also a widow). It’s all rather feverishly over-plotted (albeit in the poker-faced manner of Beryl Bainbridge and Muriel Spark, to name two obvious influences). But Mantel keeps the pot boiling merrily, fills her story with pungent conversational exchanges and observations (e.g., “Women never forget their handbags. They’re womb symbols”), and brings her story to a mordantly funny, improbably moving violent climax.
An exhilarating combination of kitchen-sink realism and grim expressionist farce: convincing further proof that Mantel is one of England’s best contemporary novelists.