At the heart of this novel lies the strange, twisted world of a mother and daughter in 1970s England who exist in virtual isolation. Various welfare agents attempt to draw the daughter, Muriel, into the community at large but are ultimately vanquished by her mother, Evelyn. A medium, Evelyn Axon believes the spirits of the dead inhabit her home, the proof their constant harassment with small acts of vandalism.
As though in a remote castle in medieval times, Evelyn ignores the hammering fists of welfare workers, hiding unopened letters in moldy stacks of newspapers and boxes of debris that clutter the conservatory, its the windows clouded by years of dust. Their fortress is virtually impenetrable, reflecting the damaged minds of both mother and daughter. Muriel has grown crafty and sly by habit, often aggravating Evelynís fears for the joy of it.
In contrast to this unfolding gothic nightmare, Isabel Field, the current social worker assigned to the Axonsí case, begins to doubt her professional abilities in reaching these difficult clients, but is distracted by a brief affair with married schoolteacher Colin Sidney. Colinís spinster sister, Florence, lives next door to the Axons, her few attempts at friendliness rudely rebuffed. Strangely, this vague connection among the Axons, the Sidneys and the social worker is the catalyst for the tragic contretemps that provides the novel with its shocking ending. Meanwhile, the seemingly ordinary lives of these peripheral characters go on: the frustrations of an unhappy marriage, the fleeting rewards of an extramarital affair, the undisciplined children whom Sylvia ignores in her own unhappiness.
Mantelís incisive wit informs this bizarre tale of sickness blooming in the midst of normalcy, the indigent and hopeless in society left to cobble together meager existences from the dregs of overburdened resources. For example, Isabel is only one of a rotating list of social workers assigned to the home of Evelyn and Muriel Axon, none able to breech the walls of the unwilling clients. By the time action is finally taken, the circumstances are extreme.
Moving among the familiar domestic dramas of the Sidneys, the unhappy Isabel and the imploding relationship of mother and daughter, the inevitable occurs, dysfunction spilling into everyday concerns, Muriel swept quickly into the system, in a tidy and efficient manner. Of course, Murielís fate remains to be seen, her cunning honed on necessity, violence occasionally indulged but not as easily eradicated from the womanís dark heart, nurtured in decay and cruelty. Out of sight, out of mind? Maybe not.