Vacant Possession
Hilary Mantel
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Buy *Vacant Possession* by Hilary Mantel online

Vacant Possession
Hilary Mantel
256 pages
August 2010
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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A prior novel, Every Day is Motherís Day, sets the stage for retribution in Vacant Possession, but Mantelís tale is as well a stunning indictment of a society that pays scarce attention to the anonymous figures marginalized by poverty and circumstance (while it is not necessary to read the prior novel, doing so adds immeasurably to the menace of this one). And while revenge is sought by the ill-used, psychologically-twisted Muriel Axon, she is clearly a product of this invisible underclass.

Since her motherís death and her own institutionalization, Muriel has indeed become a monster. Isolated and berated throughout her childhood by Evelyn Axon, a medium haunted by the very spirits she called on for clients, Muriel has kept her own counsel, absorbing information for her inventive reentry into the world. While their old home remains as empty as Murielís conscience, she cycles through the system, invisible, though the seeds of the past have taken root, Muriel plotting her moves as carefully as a chess master.

The other characters from Murielís past barely remember the incident, intent on their own problems: Isabel Field, the Axonís last social worker, now married and childless; Evelynís neighbor, Florence Sidney; Florenceís brother, Colin, a schoolteacher who had a brief affair with Isabel; and Colinís wife, Sylvia, still carping with dissatisfaction, as discontent in the Axonís house as she was in the familyís former one, the children out of control, happiness too far away on the horizon to be recognizable. To make matters worse, ten years after Evelynís death and Murielís institutionalization, the elder Mrs. Sidney is showing signs of life in her hospital bed, Isabelís father in the same hospital. All are trapped by the immutability of time, unaware that they are being watched by Muriel, the instrument of their fate.

Trapped in a fractious marriage, the disappointments of life weighing on their daily activities, the Sidneys and the social worker wallow in despair, oblivious to those who navigate a vast netherworld of scarcity where poverty smells like fear and mold perfumes their cheap rooms. While the book cover boasts of laughter and wit, what I found instead was the irony of the instinctive selfishness of small lives and the invisibility of the mentally ill and chronically poor. Through it all, the shambling figure of the hulking Muriel Axon, ďthat reclusive slab of a woman,Ē plots her revenge, a furtive creature grown in the shadows, terrorizing the lives of those who never see it coming.

But it is coincidence that is pivotal in this chilling and unpredictable tale, where circumstances abet the vengeance of the villainous Muriel. Convoluted family relationships conspire to tie Isabel, Colin, Sylvia and Florence in a tangled web that binds them together in a common fate, pushed to the edge by escalating events they do not understand. The diabolical Muriel observes the fate of her victims with glee, who belatedly understand that ďblind chanceÖ could catch you a painful blow with her white stick.Ē

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2010

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