Every Day Is Mother's Day by Hilary Mantel

There's comedy. There's dark comedy. And there's comedy so black you could polish your boots with it. Hilary Mantel's first published novel, Every Day Is Mother's Day, falls into the latter category.

For Mantel fans, this is no Wolf Hall, no Place Of Greater Safety: it's much closer to Fludd and Beyond Black. Set in a dreary town in a dreary decade (the 70s, obviously; everyone knows the 70s were all brown crimplene, power-cuts, and diarrhoea-coloured wallpaper), the novel follows the misfortunes of mother and daughter Evelyn and Muriel Axon, hapless social worker Isabel Field and the Sidneys, a tenaciously unhappy couple trapped in a loveless marriage.

How are they linked, then? Well, Isabel is social worker to the mysteriously backward, lumpen Muriel Axon, unloved by her increasingly paranoid mother Evelyn, who believes the house to be plagued by poltergeists. Isabel is embroiled in a rather petty little affair with Colin Sidney, whose sister Florence lives next door to the Axons in the house in which she and Colin grew up. Simple enough on the surface. But if you've ever read Hilary Mantel's other books, you'll know that in her worlds, there is always something festering beneath the skin of respectability, always some awkward, sharp edges, always some pieces that don't quite fit.

Evelyn and Muriel, in particular, are an almost shockingly dysfunctional pair. Prisoners in their own miserable house, possibly (or not) haunted by mysterious 'tenants', one of whom may or may not be Muriel's deceased father who may or may not have - well, just take it from me that it's all horribly sinister, and that slackjawed Muriel, locked into a cycle of mutual torment and neglect with her unstable mother, is a creation of unsurpassed creepiness.

Spare a thought too, though, for Colin and Sylvia Sidney. If they ever loved each other, they certainly feel nothing for each other now, and Colin doesn't have much fondness for his spiteful, charmless children either. She continues to produce babies, he continues to sink into depression and takes evening classes for no reason other than to escape from her. Could he have a chance at happiness with Isabel? Well, this is Hilary Mantel we're talking about. She's not known for happy endings.

This book does have striking similarities with Mantel's later novel, Beyond Black - the same destructive, loveless co-dependencies, the same Turn Of The Screw style are-they-aren't-they ghosts. Every Day Is Mother's Day isn't quite as disturbing, but it's getting there.

Alternately funny, horrifying and desperately sad, filled with characters who are almost entirely weak and unpleasant but yet brilliantly vivid and appallingly plausible (oh, how much do I wish I could create characters as brilliant as these) Every Day Is Mother's Day creeps on towards its brilliantly bitter, petty little end. If this book were a film, it would be directed by Mike Leigh, written and acted by the League of Gentlemen and would maybe include a little sprinkling of Julia Davis. Read it, but prepare to be disturbed. And have a bath afterwards. It makes you feel kind of itchy.

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