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

Friday, February 13, 2009

#07: Every Day is Mother's Day -- Hilary Mantel

"I hardly like to explore my own mind," she said softly. "I think I imagine things. I hope I imagine them. There are connections I make between events in my life, between people, and I hope they're not real connections. I tell myself it would be too much coincidence. But coincidence is what holds our lives together." (p. 75)

Coincidence is what holds Every Day is Mother's Day together in a dark, blackly comic cat's-cradle of claustrophobic relationships and suburban hell. Prequel to Vacant Possession, the novel focusses on the Axons, Evelyn (a part-time medium given to pronouncements such as "your husband Arthur is roasting in some unspeakable hell") and her daughter Muriel. Muriel is backward, or autistic, or 'special needs': certainly neither sane nor intelligent. She's not nearly as stupid as her mother believes her to be, though, and it seems that some (all?) of the paranormal nastinesses haunting the house -- mystical and mis-spelt notes, the disappearance of raw meat, strange noises and objects in disarray -- are a result of Muriel's manipulative and creative behaviour. Muriel's certain that her mother can read her thoughts, but not all her thoughts: she takes considerable pleasure in thinking of murder. ("She has murderous inclinations," says Mrs Axon, darkly, to one of a series of hapless social workers.)

Muriel doesn't say much. In fact, almost everything she does say is given as reported speech, rather than direct speech:
"How many times have I told you about going to the door?"
Oh, once, twice, thrice, Muriel replied uncaringly.
"You dare to cheek your mother!" Tears sprang into Evelyn's eyes.
(p. 66)

When her words appear on the page, it's a turning point, an awakening.

And Muriel is pregnant. (The circumstances are only hinted in this novel, but they're part of the cat's-cradle.) Her mother -- with talk of changelings and ghosts, her fear of her own dead husband's spirit returning -- manages to conceal this fact from Social Services, including their latest social worker, Isobel Field.

Isobel is, in her own way, pretty hapless. (That's her talking, in the quotation at the top of this review.) She embarks on an affair with a married man who vows to leave his wife and three (ghastly) children. The affair is bleak in a very Seventies way: a black farce of lies, long phone calls from filthy phone boxes, excuses, service station coffee. Coincidentally, Isobel's lover's mother is a former client of Mrs Axon's. Coincidentally, Isobel's lover's sister is Mrs Axon's next-door neighbour. (They don't get along.) Coincidentally, the father of Muriel's child is ... And it's probably coincidence that places Isobel's 'Axon' file in the hands of her lover's colleague, rakish inebriate Frank: "It's all about two dotty women. It's a gift. Grist to the mill. I'm going to turn it into a novel." (p. 159)

Everything's tangled together in this nameless, isolated town. Nobody ever leaves. Perhaps it's hell. Colin plays John Souza marches on the record player, because ''you wouldn't kill yourself after that -- after you'd marched about a bit. It would be too ridiculous.'' Nobody in this novel is happy, not even the children. Nobody is especially moral. Nobody is particularly likeable.

So why read Every Day is Mother's Day? Why read Mantel's novels at all?

Her prose, bleak and comic, tellingly observed and cleverly wound, is a joy to read. Discovering those webs of connection (reminiscent of Kate Atkinson's more convoluted novels) is a fascinating journey. And there is so much that's not told: so many juxtapositions, balances and counterbalances, tit for tat.

Without causality there is no time, and there is no causality in Muriel's head. Evelyn's speech is just a noise, like the clatter of dustbin lids or the crack of bone, the incessant drip of the guttering. Events have no order, no structure, no purpose. Things happen because they must, because they can. Each moment belongs in infinity, each infinity cherishes its neighbour like turtle-doves on a bough. Muriel's heart is a mathematical place, a singularity from which, in time, everything will issue. (p. 45)

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