Saturday, July 21, 2012

Vacant Possession, by Hilary Mantel

This is the sequel to Mantel's first book, Every Day is Mother's Day. Vacant Possession could stand alone as a novel, I suppose, but if I weren't reading the two in e-book format, I'd rather like them in a boxed set, tied up with a grubby, frayed bit of black ribbon.

Apart from Mrs. Evelyn Axon, whom Mantel killed off in the first book, all the characters return in this one, ten years on, and one of them, Evelyn's daughter Muriel, is intently focused on setting things back to rights. The problem here is that Muriel is rather insane, and her view of normality is shared only by fellow inmates at the institution, and not even all of them.

Colin, Sylvia and their children are now living in the large house on Buckingham Avenue that the Axons had formerly occupied with all their malevolent spirits. Colin's spinster sister, Florence, still lives next door, and Colin's ex-lover Isabel Field lives with her banker husband in the same town. It's all so cosy in a deranged sort of way. Mantel again excels at capturing the mundane day-to-day existence of middle-class Britons in the 1990s. Colin just tries to keep the family afloat and out of  the newspapers; Sylvia attends adult education courses and volunteers here and there to get away from the children.
How nice it would be if she had a job, Colin thought. He was a Deputy Head; they scraped along. There were even luxuries, like Lizzie Blank the daily woman (Tuesdays and Thursdays). But the children ate so much, and left the lights on and the taps running; they needed outfits and treats, and dinner money and bus money and more money, they insisted, for day-glo paint and handcuffs and all the other stuff you wore to an Acid Raine concert. They wanted special diets and school trips, and a tent so they could sleep in the garden in summer; they wanted video nasties, and Claire -- it was reassuring, he supposed -- wanted a new Brownie uniform. Every whim cost cash down. For all he knew, they might be maintaining a heroin habit. It couldn't have cost more. When he opened his bank statements he felt as if he were being eaten away, month by month, from the inside out. But unfortunately, there were no jobs; not for anybody really, and certainly not for Sylvia. She was not qualified for anything. She was educated now, but not trained.
Colin and Sylvia's son, Alistair, is in a particularly ugly phase of teen rebellion, but then it is his room that the Axons had euphemistically called the Spare Room, kept locked up tight because it was inhabited by all the miserable spirits Evelyn had conjured up during her career as a medium. Even now, multiple coats of paint and primer don't suppress the large patches of mould that form on the walls. Or maybe Alistair is just a typically angry teen-aged boy. Schoolmaster Colin doesn't seem to think he's all that unusual.
But he knew a hundred children as bad as Alistair, a hundred worse; antisocial truants from broken homes. Theirs was not broken; only creaking a bit under the strain. The kids passed through his office every day, en route from brief rebellion to a lifetime's acceptance of their lot. They had silly hairstyles; beneath them, dull conformist little brains.
Muriel has spent the intervening decade in the asylum, which has suitably developed her vengefulness and violent tendencies, all the while teaching her enough life skills to blend in with the more normal people on the outside. And with the economy being a bit grim and social service budgets being cut, Muriel is indeed ruled one of the inmates most suitable for release. She can pass for normal. Well, almost. As long as you don't go inside her head.
Cradling the warm egg, Muriel dug in her fingernails to crush the shell. She did not go in for table manners; they wasted time. She began to peel the skin, wincing a little as she did so. She put her tongue into the salted gelid hollow and probed gently. The room behind her was dark, and full of the minute crackling her fingers made. She sucked, thought. Most of Muriel's thoughts were quite unlike other people's.
Mantel dances on that very nebulous line between sanity and madness, with several of her characters crossing it as casually as if they were skipping rope. Effie, one of Muriel's pals at the asylum,  presents herself as the Queen, but who doesn't put on airs from time to time? 
But next day Effie went on the rampage. She had a filthy tongue in her head when she wasn't giving regal addresses. She ran screaming and cursing down Greyshott Ward and out into the corridor. "I don't need hospital," she shouted. "I don't need nurses. I'm not sick. I may be daft but I'm not sick. I don't need getting up at six-thirty every day, Christmas Day, birthday, Queen's official birthday and every bleeding Sunday. I need to get up when I want and make myself a little cup of tea." Two stout male orderlies got Effie by the arms and brought her back to Greyshott.
Once ruled sane (or adequately so), Muriel is simply released upon the world. She finds lodgings that feel just right. Home sweet derelict home.
As soon as she saw Mr. Kowalski and his house, Muriel knew it was where she must live. It was a big house, rambling and damp and dark; a permanent chill hung over the rooms. It had been condemned long ago, put on a schedule for demolition, but it seemed likely that before its turn came it would demolish itself, quietly crumbling and rotting away, with its wet rot and dry rot and its collection of parasites and moulds.
Since she's not sure how to be normal in her own persona, Muriel decides to develop a few others. With garish makeup, a wig, tacky jacket and platform boots, she becomes Lizzie Blank -- yes, the part-time housekeeper or 'daily' for Colin and Sylvia. She's interested in devising some evil form of revenge on them for taking over her mother's house and disrupting what had been their utterly wretched but familiar life there. In the meantime, however, she's happy to watch the family self-destruct.
Alistair got up, muttered, and kicked his chair. He was muttering as he walked out of the room, and hauling up his sleeve, no doubt preparatory to injecting himself with some addictive substance. "I wonder why we bother," said Colin. "I wasn't aware that you did bother," [said Sylvia]. You've always been more concerned with the welfare of other people's children than your own." "Oh, teachers' children are always worse than others. Their parents know from experience that there's nothing to be done with young people, and when they get home, they're not even being paid to try."
Oldest daughter Suzanne comes home pregnant and distraught. Her parents and the father of her child all try to convince her that abortion is the best solution, but she will not veer from her belief that her pregnancy will convince her lover to leave his wife. To his horror, Colin learns that the father of Suzanne's baby is Jim Ryan -- the husband of Isabel Field, with whom Colin had had an affair ten years before.

A petty reader might accuse Ms. Mantel of laying on the coincidences a bit thick, but not I. She slips each one in so deftly that I gasped right alongside her startled characters, and the world is, after all, a small place. These interconnections, furthermore, are not simply devices for shock value. As we read of Colin, advising his daughter on the weaknesses and foibles of cheating husbands, we remember that ten years before he was having an affair with the now-cuckolded wife. We realise that even a brief frolic in a park can have unforeseen and ghoulish consequences. John Irving also plays this sort of game very adroitly; it's an art to pull it off well.

At the centre of both these novels is Colin, leading his life of quiet desperation.
Colin's expression was gloomy. Only a week ago, he had been a comparatively happy man. The holidays were approaching; if they did not promise a rest, there would at least be a break in routine. He was looking forward to some long early morning runs, and perhaps a game of squash at lunchtime, and then to having the house to himself in the afternoons while Sylvia was out and about on her various missions; to having his time free for some brooding, for some quiet introspection. This is really what I am, he thought: a quiet man in pursuit of a coronary.
As Vacant Possession approaches its climax, Colin takes charge of his life. It's a thoroughly exhilarating experience, very new to him. Sell the house! We'll move, we'll put our lives into some new sort of order.  And they do. As the story nears its end, the big house on Buckingham Avenue is sold. That vexing, mouldy wall has been painted over (at least long enough to impress the buyers), and all their belongings have been cleared out.  Colin follows the moving van in his car; Sylvia is to follow later. 

British readers will of course know the meaning of the title, a legal term that may be unfamiliar to those of other countries:

vacant possession: "Empty. On completion of a sale a seller is obliged to deliver the property with vacant possession which means clear of occupants and of objects which are not included in the sale."
We've all vacated one home and moved to another. Do we ever leave it entirely empty? And can we ever leave it entirely behind?

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