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

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

It’s Monday! What Am I Reading?

on_mondaysAnother Monday is here and a literary awards week is behind us.  So what did everyone think?  I’ve never read anything by Hilary Mantel, though I already own Wolf Hall.  This weekend I went out and purchased two more of her novels:  A Change of Climate & Vacant Possession.  Both books are described as black comedies on the back cover – perfect October & November reading in my opinion.  Strangely, it never even occurred to me to look for something by Herta Mueller, even though I was at my favorite used bookshop of all time (Carroll & Carroll, Booksellers in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania) and spent a few minutes discussing the new Nobel laureate with the owner.  His verdict – who was last year’s winner?  I responded: I have no idea.  He nodded, Exactly.

Added to the Mantel stack were a few random books from Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series.  I’ve never read Peters, but a lovely couple who bought a bag of my books at a garage sale this past summer recommended her.  (And if you can’t trust random people who show up in your garage, in the rain, to buy your old paperbacks – well I ask you, who can you trust???)  What’s neat about the Brother Cadfael series is that it takes place during the English civil war, approximately 1139, between King Stephen & Empress Maud.  This it the war which immediately preceded Henry Plantagenet’s rule – for all the Mistress of the Art of Death fans out there.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood is finished, and the review will be up this week.  This is by far my favorite book of 2009.  So much so that after listening to the audio book I bought the hardcover.  The search is now on for “new” used copies of Oryx and Crake to force on family, friends & unsuspecting strangers passing me on the street.  (Remember, there will be a quiz).

My current nightstand steady remains Eating Air by Pauline Melville.  This is one of those books that has me wishing for a blizzard, a log cabin in Maine, and enough food to last a week.  Barring that, I hope to finish by Friday.

Until then, my review for Amphibian by Carla Gunn went up over the weekend.

And for even more recommendations, please don’t forget to check out J. Kaye’s blog.  Happy Monday!