Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel (plot spoilers)

Vacant Possession is a sequel.  Let’s start there.  It takes place ten years after the events of Hilary Mantel’s first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, and follows the lives of the characters introduced in the first book.  I was unaware of this until I’d finished Vacant Possession.  Nowhere on my copy does it state that the book is a sequel.  In fact, the only reference was under the author’s name.  A small line that reads:  Author of Every Day Is Mother’s Day.  I wasn’t happy to come upon that glaring omission, but it does pose an interesting experiment.  Can you enjoy a sequel when read out of order?

I didn’t initially feel as if I’d missed anything by starting in the middle of the story as it were.  Vacant Possession contains an ensemble cast of characters and Mantel does a good job of filling in a rough outline of the details from the previous book.  (Such a good job that *ahem* the reader might not even realize a prior book existed).  The story’s protagonist is Muriel Axon.  We meet her after her release from a mental hospital where she’s spent the last 10 years for murdering her mother (who arguably should have been locked away herself – which seems to have been the gist of Every Day is Mother’s Day).  Institutional life agreed with Muriel, who believes herself to be a changeling – the child of a faerie left behind to replace a stolen human child.  Muriel is described as mentally handicapped with problems relating to others, and so she learns to be “human” by taking on the personalities of those around her.  The motivation for all her actions is revenge on the small group of people she holds responsible for her mother’s death, for taking her house and for the loss of her child.  Based on her strange logic she has developed a plan that she believes will bring back her mother, restore her family home and her dead child to her.  The details of Muriel’s plan remain fuzzy throughout the book.  In the end it is left to the reader to decide whether or not she has succeeded.

It’s not giving much away to say that Muriel arrives at the place she was heading for by book end.  The puzzle is how much did her plan really have to do with getting her there?  And what, actually, has occurred?  The object of much of Muriel Axon’s malevolence is directed at one family, the Sidneys, who were there for the events of her mother’s death.   If Muriel’s intention is to ruin their lives, they’ve already done most of the work for her.  Muriel’s talent seems more in the way of moving herself into position to reap the rewards of a series of coincidences rather than setting events into motion.

And coincidences abound in Vacant Possession.  If the novel has a fault it is that the connections between its characters feel contrived, too coincidental and much too convenient for the author.  While I understand that those connections are integral to the plot, Mantel walks a fine line between masterful manipulation and the plain ridiculous.   For example, Colin Sidney’s mother and sister lived in the house behind the Axon’s.  The mother would go to seances which Old Mrs. Axon (Muriel’s mother) performed.  Colin Sidney was having an extramarital affair with the Axons’ social worker.  After Mrs.  Axon’s death and Muriel’s institutionalization, Colin moves his family into the Axon house.  10 years later the social worker’s husband impregnates Colin’s teenage daughter.  We find out that the same social worker’s father had impregnated Muriel 10 years before.  Etcetera, etc.

I feel that I should mention that Vacant Possession was described as a black comedy by British reviewers.  Personally I didn’t see it and wonder if having read Every Day is Mother’s Day would have made a difference.  The book contains funny bits, I especially enjoyed Colin’s asides, but “Savage and funny black humor at its best…”  “Filled with fiendish glee… Lie back and laugh yourself silly…” (blurbs from the cover) seem a bit much.  The novel is entertaining, the writing makes it a pleasure to read, but I can only assume that some of the jokes were lost in translation.

It’s difficult to reconcile the Hilary Mantel who wrote Wolf Hall with the author of Vacant Possession.   The two novels seem orthogonal to eachother, at least structurally .  The former an epic that fills in the spaces left between historical record, the latter a present day thriller which intentionally leaves gaps to be filled in by the readers. Vacant Possession was written in 1986, almost 25 years before her 2010 Mann Booker Prize win, and shows the skills of a mature author in terms of the quality of its writing.  Plot construction may be another story.  At no point in my reading did I want to abandon the novel, but there is an amount of suspended disbelief required to make it to the end.   Ultimately, I enjoyed it immensely because of the writing – Mantel is brilliant and her prose is a pleasure to read.  But I was also left feeling confused and that I lacked the necessary information to fill in the blanks.  The result:  I’ll be on the hunt for a copy of Every Day is Mother’s Day.  It remains yet to be seen if it will provide the answers I’m looking for.

United Kingdom

Publisher:  An Owl Book, Henry Holt & Co., New York.  (2000)
ISBN:  0 8050 6271 8

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5 thoughts on “Vacant Possession by Hilary Mantel (plot spoilers)

  1. I find it hard to join-the-dots between Mantel as author of Wolf Hall and as author of Beyond Black! That’s the only other Mantel I’ve read, but it makes me think that she must be a versatile writer indeed if she can alter her style so cunningly.
    BTW I didn’t know you were on Good Reads too – I’ve sent you a friend request:)

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  2. Lisa –

    My GoodReads account is sorely in need of some attention. I spend much more time on my LibraryThing and really only wander over there to check the Books On The Nightstand boards.

    Beyond Black is probably closer to Vacant Possession than Wolf Hall. I’m beginning to think that the latter is a huge departure for Mantel. I’ll have more to say in the middle of this month when I post Part 1 of my Wolf Hall review.

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  3. Hilary Mantel’s range is extraordinary. I discovered her with Restoration and have read everything that came after that. But I have never gone backwards and so I don’t know the book you read. Clearly though I should and will seek it out. Thank you for highlighting it.

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    1. fleurfisher – I’m not familiar with Restoration. Is this a case where the name of the book title was changed when published in the U.S.?

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