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The Boston Phoenix Bleak Houses

Hilary Mantel's not-so-blithe spirits

By Clea Simon

AUGUST 14, 2000: 

Fludd by Hilary Mantel (Owl Books), 181 pages (paperback), $13.

Fludd is not a pretty-looking name, and neither is the gentleman who bears it a likely hero. A supposed curate, and possible supernatural force, the quiet stranger who comes to town in the book that shares his moniker is, however, an agent of change. And as any reader of Hilary Mantel's fiction can guess from the onset, the transformations he brings about come with a spirit that belies appallingly grim conditions.

In this short 1989 novel, one of the British author's eight that had not previously been published in this country, Fludd and his co-adventurers inhabit the fictional but realistically depressed village of Fetherhoughton in the industrial north of England in the year 1956. It's a tightly clamped world of dampened weather and precious little light, into which Fludd appears on a "particularly wet evening." And though our hero may be an alchemist -- he is named for the 17th-century physician, scholar, and alchemist Robert Fludd -- he does not perform his chemical magic with any great flashes of brilliance or conjure any sparks or sun. The Fetherhoughton that Fludd comes to, and ultimately transforms, is a sooty, dank place of perpetual twilight, bordered by moors and dying factories, hatred and frost.

Which does not mean that our chemist/curate Fludd, or this book, is without humor. Here as in her other historical novels -- notably the superlative A Place of Greater Safety (1992), which follows the progenitors of the French Revolution up to their own beheadings, and The Giant O'Brien (1998), with its even more dire world of Irish émigrés -- Mantel uses bleakness as a backdrop. Against such emptiness her sense of the absurd comes into high relief, and the ordinary failings -- and frivolities -- of humanity appear in whimsical contrast. It's a world Edward Gorey would have recognized, though Mantel's dense, subtle prose draws her dreary pictures for her, where the bishop likes "nothing better than to tear around the diocese in his big black car," where a parlor "smells mysteriously of congealed gravy" and the neighborhood tobacconist may truly be, as is rumored, the devil.

Fludd (like O'Brien and most of Mantel's other novels) is a small book, but it's packed thick with this mix of the super-real and the supernatural. It's a density mirrored in the world depicted, where an ambitious bishop, a mad priest, a frustrated housekeeper, and a young nun who may or may not have either stigmata or a religious calling are forced to live cheek by jowl. There's no escape in sight, and Mantel's compact prose captures the atmosphere of claustrophobia incarnate. As the book's opens, religious and economic differences have already maneuvered depression into occasional violence. Change, or the so-called progress that the bishop espouses, is openly despised and secretly feared. Thus, when the bishop announces that a curate is being sent to aid the reluctant (and increasingly odd) Father Angwin and that the parish's beloved, if shopworn, saints' statues must be disposed of, the pressure becomes unbearable.

Fludd's appearance -- he is widely assumed to be the threatened curate -- sets the unhappy mix to boil, and changes begin. Not, however, in ways anyone (particularly the bishop) could have predicted, as household ghosts cease their pacing, the priest's whiskey seems to renew itself, and everyone's hidden agendas find their way into the open. Through such transformations Fludd makes his mark, and Mantel conveys her dark, insightful humor. Speaking to the schoolchildren, for example, Mother Perpetua explains doctrinal differences by saying "with her famous, dangerously sweet smile, 'We have no objection to Protestants worshipping God in their own way. But we Catholics prefer to worship him in his.' "

Not that Fludd, or any Mantel work, is cool at its core. Unlike those contemporary novelists who use the distance of an omnipotent narrator to smirk at the players, Mantel builds an unlikely sympathy with the often self-limiting characters, growing emotional warmth like mold on the cold, wet landscape. For though Fludd remains enigmatic, his presence, like the fabled philosopher's stone, breaks down warring elements and helps the permanent inhabitants of Fetherhoughton to comprehend their common humanity. By the time he disappears, the rigid housekeeper has mellowed toward Father Angwin and Sister Philomena's fellow nuns have helped the young country girl find her true calling. Like the reappearance of the battered statues, the Virgin with her "sickly smile and a chipped nose" and "St. Jerome with his little lion" ("not realistic at all," the bishop notes), this is a miracle of sorts: alchemy on a human scale.

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