In 1980s England, it is ten years after the shocking denouement in Every Day is Mother's Day, the characters having moved on with their lives. (While it isn't necessary to read the prior novel, it adds historical context- and menace- to this one.) No longer beleaguered by the spirits who haunted her mother, Evelyn, a medium, the hulking, crafty Muriel is a product of her environment, properly institutionalized for the last few years. Evelyn's death has seemingly put an end to the disturbing case of a mother and daughter living in isolation, successfully avoiding the social workers assigned to them. The other peripheral characters have moved on with their individual lives, unconcerned with the fate of Muriel Axon, "that reclusive slab of a woman".
Social worker Isabel Field, traumatized by her short but violent involvement with the Axon's, has married, but is still plagued by self-doubt and depression, unable to give her husband a child. The brief distraction of her affair with married schoolteacher Colin Sidney in the `70s met a predictable end with the pregnancy of Colin's wife, Sylvia, the social worker just another victim of the folly of loving a married man. Currently, Isabel derives more comfort from the bottle than her husband. For his part, Colin clings to the memories of his affair with Isabel as a respite from Sylvia's incessant carping about their unruly children and the career she might have had. With the impending arrival of their fourth child, the Sidney's have moved house, snapping up the Axon residence as a bargain, next door to Colin's unmarried sister, Florence.
Muriel is the star of the piece, an enigmatic creature whose cunning enables her to escape the tangled bureaucracy of the social welfare system. Ingenious in reentering the world without the taint of her past, Muriel is set on revenge with very specific targets in mind. Her personality forged by a crippling childhood and hostile mother, this single-minded gorgon embodies the dark side of human nature, her stunted emotional growth disguised by an ungainly body, unexpectedly delighted at the coincidences that abet her mission. And while family entanglements baffle both Isabel and the Sidney's, each character plays a part in the final drama, the outcome turning on the erratic behaviors of those who exist on society's margins and the odd coincidence.
Mantel brilliantly contrasts middle-class life and the deceits born of mental illness and chronic institutionalization, from Muriel's crafty assault on the past to Isabel Field's descent into alcoholism, Colin's chronic ineptitude and Sylvia's escalating demands for attention. Although Every Day is Mother's Day and Vacant Possession are separate novels, I imagine them combined into one chilling tale, a seamless narrative of dysfunction and retribution, where "blind chance... could catch you a painful blow with her white cane". Luan Gaines/2010.