Monday, March 07, 2016

Fludd is an early gem from Hilary Mantel

Long before Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, and long before the best-seller lists and the international literary prize circuit, Hilary Mantel (now Dame Hilary) wrote a book called Fludd.
Writing back in 1989, Mantel (who hails from my own neck of the woods, in northern Derbyshire) sets the book in a dreary northern English mill town in the 1950s, a milieu instantly familiar to me, but one that is nonetheless sketched out in insightful and almost derisory detail by Mantel. The short novel (a slim but compact 186 pages) also deals with the fading but still self-indulgent Catholic Church, represented here by the hapless and faithless old Father Angwin, the brash and bullying Bishop, the bitter and flirtatious Mother Perpetua, and the earthy, restless young Sister Philomena. Into this mix arrives the mysterious Fludd, ostensibly to act as Father Angwin's curate, but whose short visit in fact succeeds in shaking up most of the sleepy little town and its religious bourgeoisie.
Out of this base material, Mantel crafts a kind of low-key, northern English, magical realist novel, brimful of wry humour and pithy, cutting observations on the everyday world. To give just a few representative examples from the early part of the book:
"It will not do to call them lavatories, for there was no provision to wash. To wash would have been thought an affectation."
" 'They have an Orange Lodge. They are all in it, Catholics too. They have firework parties in Netherhoughton. Ox-roasts. They play football with human heads.'
" 'At some point you exaggerate,' the Bishop said. 'I am not sure at which.' "
"Then he [Father Angwin] remembered that he did not believe in God, and he went into the church to supervise the removal of the statues from their plinths."
"After the concluding prayers the other Children were at liberty to go to the school hall to conduct the social part of their business: strong tea, parlour games, and character assassination."
This is not a laugh-out-loud slap-the-thighs comedy, though. It is a taut and melancholy little novella, peppered with enough dark wit to cause many a wry upturn of the mouth at a well-turned phrase or an unexpected epithet. Fludd is painted on a much smaller canvas than her better-known Cromwell novels, but it is nevertheless sharply-etched and incisive, and a thorough pleasure to read.

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