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Book Review:
First novel good, but not for everyone

Every Day is Mother's Day

Hilary Mantel, 1985

 I just finished reading Every Day Is Mother's Day, Hilary Mantel's first novel, published when she was 33. For sure, it is one of her best novels nor to everyone's taste. But the book is funny, excruciatingly painful in parts, pitiless in depiction of characters and in its own way inspired. It's astonishing that a writer of any age could publish a debut novel of this quality. There is a sequel I haven't  read yet, Vacant Possession, which follows the daughter, Muriel Axon, into her adult life.


I decided to read Every Day is Mother's Day after reading a brief summary of the novel which is about a young child welfare caseworker in England charged with following up on the care arrangements for an adolescent, Muriel, who is developmentally delayed, possibly autistic, though this description does not appear in the novel. One on-line review refers to Muriel as a "half wit" which is certainly not the case.  Muriel's mother is a medium of sorts who believes her home is inhabited by multiple ghosts/ spirits who do whatever they can to mock her and cause her difficulty. Muriel is mostly mute, locked in her room much of the time and grossly mistreated.   She begins to take action on her own behalf when she comes to understand that her mother cannot read her mind. 


Other characters include the social worker, Isabel, pretty much clueless until the last chapter, and the sad sack married guy she is having an affair with, and his pregnant wife and his sister who lives close to the Axons. Mantel has forged a path for herself in this novel, the combination of humor, horror and character study. Beyond Black, another extraordinary Mantel novel, develops this genre but in not quite as dark a way.  None of her characters come off well, and their relationships with one another compound their emotional pain. One chapter describes a dinner party which goes from bad to terrible under the influence of alcohol, and ends in an assault everyone pretends to forget. It's excruciating to read even if you don't much like the characters. 


The end is memorable. This is a novel about child abuse, and about what can occur in private worlds fed by cruelty and an active imagination. I am still wondering what kind of background could have produced a young writer capable of a debut novel so funny, inspired and horrific, all at the same time. Fortunately, Mantel published a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost which partially answers this question. 

-- Dee Wilson

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