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Hilary Mantel: Every Day is Mother’s Day

This is Mantel’s first novel but it reads like the novel of a writer supremely confident in her ability and her material, like a writer who has many successful books under her belt. It tells the story of a few people in a small, unnamed English town which may or may not be based on her home town of Glossop. The first characters we meet and the main ones in the book are Evelyn and Muriel Axon. Evelyn’s father died when she was thirteen and then her mother became ill and was take into a home and Evelyn was brought up by an aunt. When Evelyn’s mother died, when Evelyn was seventeen, her aunt gave her notice that she had to find her own way. When her uncle introduced her to one of his shipping clerks, Clifford Axon, an older man who was looking for a wife, she accepted his proposal at once. They had a daughter, Muriel, who, she soon realised, was mentally subnormal. Clifford was not particularly interested, spending most of his time in his shed (we later learn that he entices neighbourhood young girls into it). He died in 1946. Muriel is now an adult and Evelyn is in her sixties. Evelyn is a spiritualist – she will help her next door neighbour, Mrs. Sidney – though will later retire from spiritualism. Muriel and Evelyn keep themselves to themselves. Evelyn feels that the house is haunted by spirits, that leave strange notes, make noises and attack her. Most of these, we soon learn, come from Muriel, though Muriel cannot be blamed for the regular sightings of Evelyn’s late husband. Evelyn is unaware that Muriel can read and write and is unaware that Muriel is only mildly sub-normal, though we do learn that she does live in her own strange world.

The next door neighbours are the Sidneys. Mrs. Sidney eventually goes into a home. She had two children. Her daughter, Florence, looked after her and now lives on her own in the family home. She has never married. Colin, her brother, has married. He is a history teacher, married to Sylvia and they have three children, though Sylvia becomes pregnant with their fourth during the book. He is unhappy both with his wife and with his children. To escape them, he goes to a series of evening classes. At his latest one, creative writing, he meets Isabel Field. She is single, quite a bit younger than Colin and she lives with her father. He is a retired bank manager, who drinks heavily and picks up women at the laundrette and brings them home, to Isabel’s disgust. Colin and Isabel start an affair but it is complicated by the fact that they have nowhere to go, as Isabel is adamant that Colin cannot come to her house. They end up either going to the cinema or a pub and, occasionally, having sex in his car in a field. Like virtually everyone else in this book, their lives seem to be going nowhere and they are unhappy with their lot.

Isabel does have a job. She is a social worker and she will take over the case of Muriel Axon. Muriel and Evelyn had been persuaded that Muriel should go to a daycare centre. There is only space for her to go once a week and she does. She claims to enjoy it, even bringing home a badly made basket. But she has problems. The letters that are sent home with her are hidden or destroyed. She steals the tea money and, when the group go on a shopping outing, shoplifts. Most importantly, as we learn very early on, she becomes pregnant, though who is the father we do not know. From fairly early on, things point to a negative outcome – for Muriel and Evelyn, for Florence, for Colin and Isabel – but it is not clear how or, indeed, if things may just improve.

Mantel’s skill is the portrayal of the slightly unhinged Axon mother and daughter. We gradually learn that Evelyn is completely unaware of what her daughter is thinking, what she can and does do and what she wants in her life. (Muriel, on the other hand, is worried that Evelyn can read her thoughts and often tests this, being surprised when she does not seem to read them.) Evelyn seems focused on the spirit world and is herself somewhat unhinged. Isabel and her predecessor seem almost totally unaware of what is happening until it is too late, not least because they are both preoccupied with other cases and their own personal life. They miss the warning signs that we see (and that Florence, as their next-door neighbour, sees). Mantel’s portrayal of their gradual decline is brilliant. We get hints but not full assurance. Most of the characters, including Evelyn, are totally unaware what is happening. The only one who does seem to have an idea what is going on, not least because she is the main cause, is the apparently simple Muriel. As we learn from Muriel, things, however, are not always what they seem. Mantel will go on to write other books where strange, often inexplicable things happen, showing that life is not always as straightforward as we might like to think it is. This is a superb start to her novel-writing career.

Publishing history

First published 1985 by Chatto & Windus