This is Mantel’s fourth novel. I adored her most recent two, was disappointed with her first, so this time, went for one from the middle. I absolutely loved her style in this one. The story is set in a grim fictional Northern Moor town, not completely unlike my own, and knowing where Mantel is from, possibly not unlike the one she grew up in either.
The story is set in the fifties, and the disclaimer at the front of the book tells us vaguely that the Roman Catholic Church did in fact bear “some but not much resemblance” to the church depicted in this story. Brace yourselves, then, Catholics, this may be a bumpy ride.
The first chapter is an utterly wonderful, beautiful and perfect description of the gloomy and depressing life people in small town industrial ’50s England must have lived in. She describes the main characters and their fellow town inhabitants. I cringed at the truthfulness of her portrait, whilst delighting in her incredible skill of painting it.
To cut a not-so-long story short (179 pages) there is a priest who is running an old-fashioned church, the bishop tells him it must be updated and that a curate will be sent to help. Fludd turns up in town and causes all sorts of havoc and disorder. I am not quite sure what point Mantel is trying to make with this one, but I enjoyed the ride nonetheless. The priest is a hilarious character, he is written so straight that I almost was not sure if he was supposed to be funny at first.
The priest is an atheist. He does, however, believe in the devil. Fludd asks him how that can be, and the priest replies that he has seen him about the parish. There are several weird and wonderful supernatural occurrences in this book. In my experience of Mantel, I think that may be a common thing she likes to throw in, in a matter-of-fact manner. There are also several conversations about the complicated trivialities of following the Catholic religion, introducing ideas I have never considered before, being a heathen, myself. Such as whether fish can be fried in dripping or lard on a Friday (we do not get to the answer, so I will never know).
As much as the setting is completely depressing, there is a happy(ish) ending. Did I mention that I love Mantel’s manner of writing? She has certainly found her style by this fourth book, and those who liked the Cromwell books and who are not offended by atheist priests should give this quick read a try.