Deputy Headteacher Colin has a dysfunctional family. Teenage son Alastair and the vicar's son Austin sniff glue and burgle. Wife Sylvia embraces good causes. Undergraduate daughter Susannah gets pregnant by the husband of the woman whom Colin had a fling with ten years ago and leaves university to live in a squat. Mad mother is booted out of her geriatric hospital to live next door with his unmarried sister, Florence.
And Muriel Axon, the previous occupant of the house he now lives, in has been discharged from mental hospital and now, a mistress of disguise, has come to seek revenge.
But revenge for what? Muriel's problems come from her mum who was mad and kept her in the haunted house. The one time she escaped she was made pregnant (by the father of the woman Colin had an affair with); her mother then persuaded her to drown the child in the canal.
This is a black comedy. The characters lead meaningless lives against the bleak backdrop of unemployed Britain in the seventies and eighties. Their lives are tightly and intricately intertwined; coincidences abound. And Muriel isn't mad or stupid, she is wicked.
The one clue to what this all means is given when Sylvia reviews her decaying home and says that it is like the Fall of the House of Usher to which Colin replies it is more like the fall of the House of Atreus. The House of Atreus was cursed by the Greek Gods because Tantalus cooked and served his son Pelops in a pie to the Gods. From there the crimes spread. Thyestes, twin brother of Atreus, had an affair with Aerope, wife of Atreus and unsuccessfully challenged Atreus for the throne of Mycenae. Aegisthus, son of Thyestes, killed Atreus, who had adopted him. Aegisthus then went on to have an affair with Clytemnestra, wife of Agamemnon, son of Atreus. When Agamemnon returned from the Trojan war Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him; Aegisthus usurped the throne. Later Orestes, Agamemnon's son, murders Clytemnestra and is punished by the Furies for his matricide.
But I suspect that Mantel does not intend her book to mean anything. She creates this tight knit cohort of saddoes and the she manipulates the coincidences and the crimes of Muriel until we build to a potentially horrific climax. The only logic to this is the mad perversities of Muriel (although we can feel that in some ways she is also a victim). And what happens next surely has to be in the sequel.
Black. Not really a comedy, not really a farce.
Mantel has written better books. Similar to this is the wonderfully funny Beyond Black, about a medium who really does interact with the spirit world even though she would rather not, and (of course) the brilliant Booker winning Wolf Hall and its Booker winning sequel Bring Up the Bodies.
August 2012; 239 pages
- Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57