Stephen King meets Muriel Spark in Hilary Mantel's first novel.
Evelyn Axon - a medium by trade - and her half-wit daughter Muriel have become a social problem. Barricaded in their once-respectable house, they live amid festering rubbish, unhealthy smells - and secrets. They completely baffle Isabel Field, the social worker assigned to help them. But Isabel is only the most recent in a long line of people that find the Axons impossible. Meanwhile, Isabel has her own problems: a married lover, Colin. He is a history teacher to unresponsive children and father to a passel of his own horrible kids. With all this to worry about, how can Isabel even begin to understand what is going on in the Axon household? When Evelyn finally moves to defend Muriel, and Muriel, in turn, acts to protect herself, the results are by turns hilarious and terrifying.
American readers know English writer Mantel as the author of The Giant, O'Brien, A Place of Greater Safety and other critically hailed novels. This work, a twisted romp through the lives of long-time widow Evelyn Axon and her mentally handicapped middle-aged daughter, Muriel, was her debut novel, originally published in the U.K. in 1985. The peculiar dynamics of the mother-daughter relationship, and the complications arising from assorted meddlers, offset the disarmingly chipper narrative tone and well-appointed language. Evelyn lives with Muriel in a once respectable but now dilapidated house in a tony neighborhood, and she doesn't take kindly to social workers' insistent, condescending interest in her daughter. While Evelyn and a revolving door of social workers--including young and inexperienced Isabel Field--believe Muriel to be severely impaired, she's actually crafty and manipulative, like her mother. Much of the novel's dark humor lies in Muriel's outrageous thought processes, for while she cannot function "normally," her mind is far from simple. Evelyn, who practices the art of the s ance, is also thrilling to watch as she defends herself against her daughter and the various spirits who taunt her with mysterious household mishaps. When elderly Mrs. Sidney visits Evelyn, hoping to make contact with the late Mr. Sidney, a series of coincidental events convinces Evelyn that Mrs. Sidney's daughter, Florence, is responsible for the social workers' increasing surveillance. Other complications occur through Florence's married brother, Colin, whose contemplated affair with a young woman in his evening writing class involves him in the Axon family circus. Mantel proves that even early on she was an excellent prose stylist and storyteller, expert at threading quirky characterization with black humor and a somewhat macabre imagination.
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A stunning, relentlessly interesting novel. Thoroughly original, full of powerful images, masterful in every way.