No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

#37: Vacant Possession -- Hilary Mantel

The town was in itself a universe, a universe in a closed box. There was no escape, no point of arrival, and no point of departure. 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.

Despite the various plaudits from the quality press ("Filled with fiendish glee" - New Statesman: "macabre and wonderfully funny" - Standard) the humour here is of the blackest kind. Vacant Possession is scathingly funny, but the plot would make an excellent Greek tragedy. ("It's like the house of Atreus," says Colin, quite late on, though mostly in reaction to the breakdown of the washing machine.) There are few, if any, characters, whose lot improves.

Colin Sidney, head teacher and family man, lives at 2 Buckingham Avenue. They bought the house surprisingly cheaply: it had been the home of two women, Mrs Axon and her daughter, who didn't maintain the property. When the mother (prone to seances and to confronting Social Services) died, the daughter left. Not that the house was exactly ... vacant.

The Sidney family is not a happy one. Colin is still beating himself up about an affair he had ten years ago with a social worker (the very social worker who confronted old Mrs Axon on the day she died). Sylvia has thrown herself into community work, and into domestic strife. Their son Alistair spends most of his time in his room, apparently experimenting with Satanism. ("It's better than him joining the Young Conservatives," says Colin helplessly.) Elder daughter Suzanne is, when the novel opens, away at university. The two younger girls, Karen and Claire, seem set to become excoriating social critics, if their behaviour en famille is anything to go by. Quiet desperation is the English way. It's 1984, York Minster has just burnt down (funnily enough, there's been a fire in the Sidney's kitchen: their cleaning lady claims to know nothing about it) and the Sidneys struggle on the genteel edge of poverty, never quite enough money to set themselves free.

This is a novel that needs to be mapped. The cleaning lady ("Some rooms have no talent for cleaning. Some rooms will never be clean.") is a nexus. So's Isabel, Colin's ex-fling. There's a skeleton in the canal, and a baby that becomes barter. There's a woman who believes herself to be a changeling and to have given birth to another. ("Most of Muriel's thoughts were quite unlike other people's.") There's arson, adultery, murder and madness and sweet cold revenge.

I've worked out what Nicola Barker's Darkmans reminded me of: it's Hilary Mantel's writing. Coincidence and repetition, synchronicity and echoes: in Vacant Possession the characters eat eggs, go out through the wrong door, suffer delusions of being forgotten royalty. A phrenologist's head becomes an icon of dread import. And there's a constant thrum of something uncanny, something malevolent.

The house was full of what she had conjured up; a three-bed two-reception property on a large corner plot, all jostled and crammed with the teeth-bearing dead, stranded souls whistling in the cavity walls, half-animated corpses under the flagstones outside. One bedroom, which they called the spare room, had its special tenants. Without eyes and ears, they made themselves known by shuffling; by the soft sucking of their breath, in and out; but they had no lungs. They were malign intentions, Mother said, waiting to be joined to bodies; they were the notions of the dead, expecting flesh.

That said: yes, it is a funny book, because though one might care about the characters it's hard to like any of them. When the whirl of vengeance coalesces into prop-swaps and sleight-of-hand that wouldn't disgrace a three-room farce, the sheer cleverness of the plot (and the odd wit of the plotter) is more immediately admirable than any of the abortive efforts towards niceness, ethical behaviour, decency that one character or another may occasionally make. The Sidneys and their ilk are not bad people. They are simply trapped.

Utterly bleak, cruelly funny and with dryly measured prose that has the precision and rightness of Mozartian chamber music, Pseuds' Corner here I come I liked this very much, though I think it appealed to the worst parts of me.

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