Vacant Possession


Author: Hilary Mantel

Finished on: 4 April 2015

Where did I get this book: 37th birthday present

In my view Mantel is not just one of the best writers alive today, but one of the best writers who has ever lived.

Her historical novels A Place Of Greater Safety, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies are astoundingly good. Beyond the drama and the great sweep of these stories, her writing is spectacular. She seems to me, perhaps more than any other writer, to be sorcerer with words in complete mastery of the English language. She can bend it and shape it, use it to do amazing things, craft a wonderfully luxurious bed of language for you to lie in and enjoy.

But it is actually even more all-consuming than a bed. Someone like Agatha Christie writes a comforting bed to fall into, a fireside to warm yourself by. But Hilary Mantel writes a planetarium, where you lie back and have your senses overwhelmed, lose yourself completely in awe. She is just so bloody impressive.

An excerpt from Bring Up The Bodies to illustrate my point:

They are tired; the sun is declining, and they ride back to Wolf Hall with the reins  slack on the necks of their mounts. Tomorrow his wife and two sisters will go out.  These dead women, their bones long sunk in London clay, are now transmigrated.  Weightless, they glide on the upper currents of the air. They pity no one. They answer  to no one. Their lives are simple. When they look down they see nothing but their  prey, and the borrowed plumes of the hunters: they see a flittering, flinching universe,  a universe filled with their dinner.

Sorry… Where was I? All I know is, if I ever write half as well as that, I will die a happy lady.

But aside from the mastery of the big historical novels, what I have read of Mantel has been a mixed bag. Fludd was great, Beyond Black was alright, but I’ll be honest  The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was (whisper it) boring.

Vacant Possession is the sequel to her first novel Every Day Is Mother’s Day, which I haven’t read. It is a bleak, Thatcher-era The Count Of Monte Cristo revenge tale, but where Dantes is grotesque, he doesn’t really understand why he wants revenge, and we don’t care if he gets it.

It is not an enjoyable book, and it is not a luxurious book. I should caveat that by saying I am unapologetic about wanting to like and emotionally engage with at least one character in the  books I read. And that is not the case here.

It is a well-written but depressing story. For a while it feels like we’re getting into fairy tale or fable territory; despite the realism of the setting it is full of improbable coincidences and intertwined lives. She says at one point:

Life just arranges itself, usually for the worst, and chance is not blind at all; it has as  many eyes as a fly on the wall.

Things were looking up for me here. It felt like we were building towards a satisfying plot strand-tying up denouement. Despite the lack of engaging characters, at least there would be the pleasure of seeing the technical skill of a well-wrapped up story. But there wasn’t.

I love her. She is still on my list of ideal dinner party guests. But this is more of a Mantel miss than a hit for me.

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