If Vacant Possession is a comedy then I think I missed the joke.
Don’t get me wrong, it is funny, very funny. Some of the funniest images and one liners I have read are in this book.Such as a description of a patient in the old folks home; “Dr Furness said it was a benign delusion. It’s not unusual, as these things go. There was a poor old lass came in with hypothermia, last winter it would have been, that thought she was the present Majesty. Used to knock her drip bottle about, thinking she was launching cruise liners” or when Colin was ruminating “Blind chance, he knew, could catch you a painful blow with her white stick.”
But I think I had a hard time grasping the satire this book is supposed to be. Perhaps I was lacking the context, the world of 1980s Britain in which it was set. The novel is overwhelmingly a comment on the social system, both in terms of mental health care, aged care and social welfare that still resonates today. And certainly, Mantel makes some very darkly dry insights on the nature of marriage, but again, I may be lacking the context of living in a loveless and stifling long term marriage with four unbearable children.
Yet mostly, I think I don’t get the joke because the content is so depressingly dark, and the characters are so human, so twisted and self serving.
Despite all of that, or perhaps because of it, I love this book. I found it to be much more enjoyable then it’s prequel, Every Day is Mothers Day (I finally understood the meaning of that title after it was explained in this novel) and far more approachable. The whole time I found myself marvelling at Mantel’s access to madness, her ability to see into and empathise so closely with varying levels of mental illness and disorder. I suppose it was this same empathy and insight that enabled her to so beautifully give life to the characters in her stunning novel Wolf Hall. I felt in this book that I finally understood Muriel Axon, that I had greater access to her thoughts and deeper wonder of her multiple personalities, which are deliciously constructed by Mantel. While Muriel was only afforded one line of speech in the prequel, this book was very much concerned with her thoughts and her schemes.
While Mantel depicts the actions of Muriel and the other characters gleefully, there is always a moment where she brings the pain, the honesty, and the awfulness of their lives in to focus. I think this is another reason I found this book hard to laugh at. Much like another of her deeply dark novels Beyond Black, I found myself getting sucked in to the humour only to be sharply chastised with a reminder of horrific childhood abuse or deprivation. It doesn’t make for the most carefree reading, but it certainly is rewarding in the challenges it presents.
I find it amazing that this book works on so many levels, a comment on contemporary society, an insight into madness, while still managing to maintain the suspense of a a good action thriller. Hilary Mantel is most certainly one of my favourite authors.
Now reading Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal by Jeanette Winterson