Book review: Fludd by Hilary Mantel

This gentle ecclesiastical comedy, published in 2010, borders on the satiric, and is utterly different from the two Hilary Mantel books I’ve already reviewed1. Its dry humour often produces a kind of tickling in the upper reaches of the abdomen, that wants to break out into a full blown laugh but never quite makes it!

In a foreword, Mantel informs us that the real Fludd (1574-1637) was an alchemist, alchemy portraying a world that not only has a literal and factual dimension but one that is also symbolic and fantastical. And that’s an apt representation of this story, which hints at hidden meanings, actions and motivations, lurking beneath the surface of everyday life in 1956 in a fictitious village called Featherhoughton and the neighbouring community of Netherhoughton.

Eye-catching similes (for example, the church door “opened with its customary groan, like a jaded actor falling back on proven effects”) and metaphors (eg “she had tombstone teeth”) abound – and add sparkle to this sometimes dark, somewhat absurd, award-winning tale.

The Fludd of the novel’s title is a young curate brought in by the local bishop to liven up the appeal of the village church. Fludd’s appointment immediately gets tongues wagging and his effect on the neighbourhood is decidedly different from what was anticipated. As the story unfolds, it opens out into a catalogue of the foibles of a number of the characters in this cloistered, constrained society, with its rules, regulations and quirky routines, whilst all the time implying something about the foolishnesses of the wider world. To that extent, and though the nature of the prose is very different, I was reminded of Dylan Thomas‘s Under Milk Wood and the way it holds up to ridicule the mores of an inward-looking community and the individuals and groups who populate it. On more than one occasion I also felt, style-wise, that I was reading a third person version of Virginia Woolf‘s stream of consciousness.

Although there’s much caricature in the novel, Mantel certainly makes us stop and think. This is a book that can prompt us to reflect on our own character and attitudes and, shudder the thought, occasionally see aspects of ourselves in these seemingly ridiculous people.

It’s a clever admixture of religion, doubt, love, deceit, obsession, intrusion, denial and many other emotions and essences. In short, this fairly brief, comic novel presents a little world of universal and often inconvenient truths.

1 See my reviews of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies

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