I first encountered Hilary Mantel’s work in Wolf Hall, the 2009 bestselling historical novel about the rise of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s powerful chief minister. Mantel really gets under the skin of a man who is usually—in histories and fiction about Henry and his wives—presented as a secondary character with a few broad strokes. Then I discovered Mantel’s first novel, Every Day Is Mother’s Day, published in 1985, and learned that she has an extensive back list, encompassing historical fiction, memoir, short stories, and contemporary fiction.
There is a creeping, cloying weirdness to this novel that makes me think of Ruth Rendell’s disturbing psychological thrillers, like The Killing Doll. But Mother’s Day isn’t crime fiction; instead it tracks the everyday challenges faced by two sets of mangled, thwarted characters. Evelyn, an elderly, distracted mother abuses—and is abused by—her “half-wit” (possibly autistic) adult daughter. They are linked, through the coincidence of real estate and the welfare state, to Colin, a weaselly history teacher with a remarkably imaginative inner voice; his unremarkable wife Sylvia; and his mistress Isabel, an inept and callous social worker. (‘Coincidence is what holds our lives together,’ Isabel tells Colin. ‘That’s why you always get it in books.’) (Wink, wink.)
While the story delves into the sordid and the tragic, Mantel also makes her novel wickedly funny. Colin and Isabel meet in a creative writing evening class—the kind where the teacher assures her students “there’s a book in each of us.”
“Is there?” said Colin, enraged by this. “I wonder if people would like to tell us what book there is in them? I should like mine to be Les Liaisons Dangereuses or The Brothers Karamazov, but more likely it is something like Famous Five Join the Circus.*
Mantel is an impressive stylist; I found myself underlining many of her passages, and even read a few aloud to my husband. When Colin tries to call Isabel at work, he only gets through to “[t]that deadly secretarial voice, that hope-crusher, that frustrated old maid; some slab-toothed old hag with thin knees pressed together and her glasses on a little gold chain, some Medusa in an Orlon cardigan.” And after one of Colin and Isabel’s early assignations in a pub:
The night buffeted past them like an animal avid for the hearth. They left the bright doorway for darkness and raw blue air. . . . On the safe and public tarmac, splashed by yellow lights from the main road, he felt a fugitive wind on his cheek . . .To be exiled, he had read, you need not leave home.. Banishment is to the desert round of the familiar world, where small conversation is made and the weekly groceries are bought in good time.
After reading a few crime genre novels, I found Every Day is Mother’s Day a refreshing, if unsettling, change of pace. I loved how Mantel writes, and in particular the way she treats her troubled characters not only with wit but also with generous insight. I plan to read Vacant Possession, the 1986 sequel to Mother’s Day, as well as the recently published sequel to Wolf Hall: Bring Up the Bodies.
* As you might expect from the title, Famous Five Join the Circus is one in a British series of children’s adventure books.