Monthly Archives: March 2015

Review: Fludd, Hilary Mantel

Hilary Mantel is best known in recent years for her award winning novels Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Given the accolades showered upon Mantel’s fictional treatment of Tudor England, readers may be forgiven for overlooking one of her earlier novels, Fludd (1989.) Indeed, short, strange, tragicomic, and allegorical, Fludd could easily be dismissed as a curio, a relic predating Mantel’s ascent to literary stardom. But like the novel’s title character, Fludd conceals more than it lets on.

Fludd, Hilary Mantel.

Fludd, Hilary Mantel.

Mantel takes us to Fetherhoughton, a dour mill town in the north of England. Mid-twentieth century Fetherhoughton is a singularly miserable place, surrounded by moors on three sides, “the vast cemetery of [the villagers’] imaginations” (12). Father Angwin, Fetherhoughton’s spiritual leader, is a drunk. He is also an atheist. Agnes Dempsey, Father Angwin’s be-moled housekeeper, cares for the priest and keeps him to a semblance of order.

The “modern” bishop, upon visiting Fetherhoughton, insists that Father Angwin dispose of the statues of saints that line the church. Father Angwin is distraught: “[F]aith being dead, if we are not to become automatons, we must hold on to our superstitions as hard as we may” (27). The bishop will also send a curate to “assist”–that is, spy upon–Father Angwin. When the titular Fludd arrives in Fetherhoughton, he is both more and less than what he seems, and he sets into motion events that will change the lives of Father Angwin, Agnes, and Sister Philomena, among other Fetherhoughtonians.

Someone made fun of me for reading this edition, referring to it as a "unicorn book."

Someone made fun of me for reading this edition, referring to it as a “unicorn book.”

Mantel narrates Fludd with a diction that is distinctly English even to these benighted American ears. The “typography of Fetherhoughton may repay consideration,” Mantel tells us. “So may the manners, customs and dress of its inhabitants,” all of which, by the way, Mantel neatly skewers (11). That line is representative of a syntax and vocabulary that is singularly English. The propriety of Mantel’s writing lends it an archness that simultaneously softens and enhances the jibes she makes at her characters’ expense. Fetherhoughtonians, stand-ins for Mantel’s northern countrymen, refer to the second stories of their homes as “miyoopstairs” (13). Distraught by the suggestion of the vernacular Mass, Father Angwin comments of the townspeople, “I can well understand if you think Latin’s too good for them. But the problem I have here is their little grasp of the English language, do you see?” (10). Mantel employs this diction and tone to great comic effect throughout Fludd. She makes it plain that Fetherhoughtonians know nothing about their faith, and the (faux) politeness of her delivery demonstrates not only the absurdity of their practice, but also the absolute confidence with which they mangle their religion.

Some readers have complained that Fludd loses its momentum in its third act. It’s true that the story grows somber as Mantel shifts her perspective from Father Angwin’s battles with the bishop to Sister Philomena’s more existential struggle with life as a nun. In my opinion, Mantel’s decision to focus on Sister Philomena improves the story. It takes what would be a passing comedy and lends it greater depth. As Mantel makes clear before she begins the novel, Fludd is based on a sixteenth and seventeenth century alchemist, so the story must involve transformation. Some readers may find Sister Philomena dull–I did not–but, by becoming involved with her, Fludd himself is changed. Fludd confesses that he normally ignores women, but he is drawn to Philomena. Through Philomena, then, Mantel takes a deus ex machina-type character, the mysterious and unknowable Fludd, and illuminates his humanity. The novel is the better for it.

Fludd may not be a perfect or even a great novel, but it is a very good one. Some readers have commented on its subtle “gothic” tone, but that’s hardly right; indeed, if the gothic is present at all in Fludd, it is there for Mantel to mock. Fludd is something of a paradox. It is a comedy that knows the importance of the issues at which it pokes fun. Mantel is cynical, but she also believes in personal transformation. It is complicated, like Father Angwin, who, having given up on God, fights all the harder on behalf of “the dear old faith.” Fludd is of two minds, like many of us these days: “Everyone is where they should be; or we may collude in pretending so. And God’s in his heaven? Very bloody likely, Father Angwin thought” (157). Highly recommended.

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February Recap

February 2015: I quit. Then I didn’t.

Tl;dr: I overreacted to the feeling that blogging was (is?) an obligation, and, more generally, “information overload.” It turns out my blogsbuddies have experienced similar feelings and have devised a variety of coping mechanisms. Lessons learned:

  1. I should be less dramatic.
  2. I’m not alone in feeling overwhelmed at times by my digital experiences, which is heartening.

Am I back? Not quite. I’m figuring out how to manage my online experiences in a way (or ways) that minimizes anxiety and stress. Blogging is secondary to that. But I won’t rule out the possibility of continuing to blog if and when the muse strikes. (I quite admire From Couch to Moon’s schedule, consisting as it does of weekly posts, with occasional increased frequency, usually dependent upon awards schedules.)

I haven’t posted a review for some time, but I have been reading. I plan on writing longer reviews of Signal to Noise and Half the World, but I’m listing here some “flash reviews” of the books I’ve finished over the past few weeks.

Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts. I knew after reading Jack Glass that I needed to read something else by Adam Roberts. Yellow Blue Tibia begins in the USSR, 1947. Stalin calls leading Soviet sci-fi authors together to imagine an alien threat that might unite humanity. The project is canceled without explanation, and, decades later…the narrative imagined by Stalin’s writers appears to be coming true. I quite liked Yellow Blue Tibia, and would recommend it over Jack Glass. See Catherynne M. Valente’s blog for a very different reaction.

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick. The first PKD I ever read! A dark vision of the future (really the 1990s, imagined in the 1970s) illuminated by PKD’s incandescent prose. PKD questions the nature of identity, and, ultimately, the realities in which we perceive ourselves, via Bob Arctor, an inveterate drug user who also happens to be an undercover police officer keeping tabs on…Bob Arctor. Arctor’s brain is fried by Substance D, and nothing is quite what it seems. Bottom line: I thoroughly enjoyed this PKD, and look forward to reading more in future.

The Gallows Curse, Karen Maitland. A historical mystery with just a dash of the supernatural. I enjoyed Maitland’s previous novels, A Company of Liars and The Owl Killers, both in the same vein, e.g., murder mysteries set in the darkness of thirteenth and fourteenth century England. There are some interesting elements here–for instance, the narrator is a mandrake (!!!)–but, overall, The Gallows Curse is dull. The plot, or plots, involving a villager falsely accused of murdering her child and a French plan to overthrow King John, didn’t quite add up, and the ending was unsatisfying. I don’t know anyone who enjoys this (sub)genre the way I do, but, if you do, you might want to steer clear of this entry.

Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Children, Ransom Riggs. (Young adult.) The follow up to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar ChildrenHollow City is even darker in tone, with Jacob, Emma, and the other peculiars trekking across England and Wales, 1940, in search of a way to save Miss Peregrine. Riggs’s story is effective, if not particularly compelling, and moves forward at a steady clip. Although narrated by Jacob, a fifteen year old, it reads like someone twenty years older, an effect that is jarring and inauthentic. An entry in an ongoing series, Hollow City, predictably, involves a twist and a cliffhanger ending.

Signal to Noise and Half the World are both for the young adult crowd. Signal to Noise has received quite a lot of buzz, due perhaps to its unique setting, 1980s Mexico City. I found it a sweet if not particularly affecting story, and recommend Abercrombie’s book over it. Reviews forthcoming…when I get around to it.

Update/Forgot to mention: I’ve decided that, for every novel or short story collection I read by a male author, the next I read will be by a female author. (This doesn’t apply to nonfiction, which I handle differently.)