The strangeness of Hilary Mantel

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Before she had time to scramble to her feet the intruder was upon them; not the Reverend Teller, but a wild youth, brawny and stubble-headed, wearing boots the equal of the vicar’s, and with leather thongs binding each wrist.

‘Jesus,’ Alastair breathed. He sized up the lad and knew he was no match. They were at his mercy. Do something, Scab, he thought, distract him, offer him your body.

‘We weren’t doing no harm, mister,’ he said in a whining voice. ‘Don’t beat us up, we’ll leave peaceable, honest.’

The youth’s beefy chest heaved. He reached forward; Alistair was taken up by the front of his zipper jacket and held, skull to hairless skull.

‘Where’s that friggin’ Austin?’ the youth demanded.
‘Never saw him,’ Alastair said gamely. ‘Who are you? Aw, gerrof, don’t torture me.’

‘Me?’ said the youth. He breathed into Alistair’s putty face. ‘I’m his friggin’ probation officer.’ 214

Who else but the wonderful Hilary Mantel in her pre-Wolf Hall days, the days when she let rip with her changeling self. In comparison with her early work, Wolf Hall (much as I like it) is a surprisingly conventional work. Re-reading Vacant Possession, which was first published in 1987, I was reminded again what an outlaw, what a renegade, she is by nature, a demonic writer who says to us, ‘I’m not making this up. It’s like that, you know it is.’ And we do know it, though most of the time we don’t choose to think about it: human beings are just as deep, dark and strange as they are in these early books (Every Day is Mother’s Day, Vacant Possession, Fludd, Beyond Black.) Forget the lurid prose of horror stories and the manufactured creepiness of vampire tales; this is the real thing, scary, challenging and deeply disturbing to our sense of the reliable ordinariness of life – and at the same time funny, very funny (fiendish glee, says the blurb), and with a beautifully merciless turn of phrase:

Ryan was still flushed, his thin straw hair stuck up in tufts where he had raked his fingers through it when he talked about Isabel. He was a mass of little tics, of amoral reflexes, of tiny mental knee-jerks that kept him out of guilt and anguish and justified himself to himself 166

It’s the blackest of black comedies about the welfare state under Thatcher. It’s also, as the title suggests, about a house haunted by the cruelty, deprivation and malice that’s been played out in it so that it can never make a home for the family that comes into it later. If Mantel doesn’t exactly believe in ghosts, she does seem to believe in the power of unhappiness to haunt places and to influence the people who live in them. And she certainly believes in a psychic wasteland where unwanted humans like her character Muriel Axon live, in which they’re drawn into a kind of magic thinking to put some order into that wasteland.

I was trying to think, as I read, who she reminds me of in this book, and the two I came up with were Muriel Spark, though she is a more domesticated beast than Mantel, and the great Australian Patrick White. Even though White has a much grander (and more grandiose) project, he has a similar attraction to, and feeling for, the battered, the outcast, the extreme character who just doesn’t fit the accepted mould, and there’s a similarly surreal take on the stolid pieties of the mainstream. But I can’t imagine Patrick White writing about the friggin’ probation officer.

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13 thoughts on “The strangeness of Hilary Mantel

  1. Did you like it? I;m working my way through it at the moment.

    I just can’t say how much I admire her as a writer. Such a wide range, as the move from these earlier books to the Wolf Hall series shows, such a beautiful style and such an original take on the world. And she’s not at all interested in the public hype of being a writer. She just loves to write!

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    1. Yes I liked it. After watching it I read a bit about Cromwell and the theory that he possibly exacted revenge against Boleyn. Hard to say. But those you piss off on the way up, you’ll pass on the way back down. I think the series did a good job of showing how everyone was subject to the vagaries of henry and how throwing a woman (relation) in his path was a good/bad move for the fortunes of the family. What horrible times.

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    1. Ah yes, Beyond Black (thanks for that, I had written Black Magic, which I’ve now fixed)has similarities to this one. Don’t agree with you about Wolf Hall, though I did get a bit tired of A Place of Greater Safety.

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  2. Add me to the list of fans of Beyond Black. I haven’t read this one, but it sounds as if there are some parallels between the two. I love your commentary on Mantel’s belief in the psychic wasteland. She seems interested in our idiosyncrasies, human beings who are ‘different’ from the norm.

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  3. I agree with ‘the power of unhappiness to haunt places and influence the people who live in them’ – very well put. It’s certainly true of how I remember Beyond Black, which I also admired for a sense of mystery that deepened the more you went on reading. I’ve had several tries at Wolf Hall, but abandoned it each time – probably my fault rather than the book’s.

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    1. Some other commentators on this blog have said the same about Wolf Hall. We’ve talked before about the problem with historical fiction when writers seem to view it as us and our times simply recast in the idiom of another time. That’s what I admire so much about her, that she completely inhabits the time she writes about. And she just writes so well.

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