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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Vacant Possession

Hilary Mantel

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To purchase Vacant Possession

Title: Vacant Possession
Author: Hilary Mantel
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986
Length: 242 pages
Availability: Vacant Possession - US
Vacant Possession - UK
Vacant Possession - Canada
  • Vacant Possession is the sequel to Every Day is Mother's Day (see our review).

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Our Assessment:

B : more dark fun with the same crowd from Every Day is Mother's Day

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 29/8/2010 Richard Rayner
The NY Times Book Rev. A 30/4/2000 Kathryn Harrison
San Francisco Chronicle . 12/3/2000 Janice P. Nimura
Wall St. Journal . 31/3/2000 Merle Rubin

  From the Reviews:
  • "Once she sets her mind on vengeance, there can really be only one winner, and the novel zooms toward an orgy of murder that Mantel renders with hilarious, scary glee. Maybe Mantel's making a feminist point, but something wider is going on too. Her fiction tells us that the individual always matters, and there's no end to specific weirdness of the individual." - Richard Rayner, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Both more absurd than its predecessor and more serious in intent, Vacant Possession is a dark novel that poses dire questions about the nature of identity and interdependence. (...) Manipulated by Muriel, the world of Vacant Possession obeys its own logic to the extent that otherwise unbelievable coincidences make perfect if uncomfortable sense." - Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In Vacant Possession, virtually every connection made in the first book comes back into play; instead of a simple ring of linked characters we get a whole web, with Muriel squatting malevolently in the center." - Janice P. Nimura, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Yet while Ms. Mantel is unsparing in depicting the folly and perversity of "ordinary" people, she does not pretend that they are more dangerous than the lunatics." - Merle Rubin, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Vacant Possession returns to the dark ground covered in Every Day is Mother's Day (see our review) some ten years after. Familiarity with the first book is of some help, if only to get a solid feel for the characters and their backgrounds, but Mantel does an excellent job of going over everything of note that happened, taking her time in recapitulating the events and showing what has happened to the protagonists over the intervening decade.
       Every Day is Mother's Day closed with Muriel Axon, the apparently retarded woman who lived in almost complete isolation with her mother, being taken off to a state institution after the unfortunate demise of her mother. The Axons' neighbour was Florence Sidney, whose own mother was previously driven over the edge by mother Axon. Florence's brother, Colin, makes the unfortunate decision to purchase the vacated Axon residence at the end of Every Day is Mother's Day, moving there with his family -- wife Sylvia and a brood of children. Lastly, there is Isabel Field, the social worker assigned to the Axons -- and who had an affair with Colin. She made a hash of her duties and was set to quit social work for banking after the unfortunate turn of events at the close of Every Day is Mother's Day.
       It is now the mid-1980s. Colin and his family still live in the former Axon residence, and though Colin has settled down a bit his family life is hardly more harmonious. Isabel is unhappily married. Muriel Axon has spent most of these years in an institution, but is now allowed out.
       Life in the institution has certain advantages for Muriel.

By watching other people, by stealing their expressions and practising them, she was adding to her repertoire. I was no one when I came her, she thought; but after a few years of this, there's no saying how many people I'll be.
       Once she's out she does indeed become any number of people. One of the many is Lizzie Blank, who contrives to secure a position cleaning Colin Sidney's house. In another guise she works at a hospital -- the one where both Mrs. Sidney (Colin and Florence's mum) and Isabel Field's father are being cared for.
       Old Mrs. Sidney recognizes the neighbour-child (Colin and his sister and his wife don't), and it brings her out of her stupor -- though not quite enough to be able to convince anyone else that the woman is Muriel Axon. (Mrs. Sidney, who believes she is royalty, isn't anywhere near all there even after she regains some of her senses.) Isabel's father also recognizes Muriel -- the two share a dark connection which is at the root of much of Muriel's anger.
       Muriel manages to complicate life nicely for all of these people -- lives which are already complicated enough. Complications -- many of which are actually self-made -- and coincidences abound. Most notably one of Colin Sidney's nightmarish children manages to get herself pregnant by a married man (no difficulty in guessing who that man's wife might be).
       The situation gets worse and more complicated as the lives of these people who had gone their separate ways are again brought together, and the ending proves to be fairly nasty.
       Mantel has her usual wicked fun -- and there is a fair amount of fun in these bizarre circumstances. The story is also fairly dark. Once again parenthood is a horror. Mrs. Sidney, brought back into the family fold, suffers most ignominiously. Isabel's father suffers even more. Colin's half-grown children are a horrible brood. His pregnant daughter -- and pregnant Isabel Field -- fare no better in becoming mothers.
       Muriel Axon is a well-developed villain here, coming more fully into her own than in the first book. The other characters, however, seem less well-developed, particularly Isabel who has fallen apart over the past decade and whom Mantel shows little interest in putting back together again.
       There's some fun social commentary thrown in as well, especially regarding the state of British medical care, but Mantel effortlessly also bring in matters such as class as well.
       Well-written, with some fine details, the book is good dark fun.

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Vacant Possession: Reviews: Hilary Mantel: Other books by Hilary Mantel under Review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       English author Hilary Mantel was born in 1952. Author of several highly praised novels, she won the Hawthornden Prize in 1996.

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