by Hilary Mantel
Recommended by our book group. I am reading ahead, so had better make some notes as we are not due to discuss this book for another two months!
I have read other books by Mantel: Beyond Black, Giving up the Ghost, A Place of Greater Safety, Wolf Hall. This is the first one that our book group has taken on, and I anticipate it will get a very mixed response.
I found that I couldn’t put this book down. The writing is very direct and engaging, and draws the reader into what is, after all, a slightly fantastic story. On one level, it is the story of a young nun’s sexual awakening when she comes into contact with, and eventually runs away with, a young man who may or may not be a priest. The setting is an important part of the story: a remote and backward working-class community near Manchester; cotton mills; wild moorland; daily toil. The surroundings are unremittingly bleak. Mantel has evidently based this story on the area in which she grew up, and the date when the events in the story unfold mirrors a similar event in her home community, when the local Catholic church removed the statues of various saints.
On another level, the story is about religion, superstition, the hold that faith can have on an individual and a community, and the dangers (and pleasures) involved in breaking the rules. At no point does the reader feel inclined to urge Sister Philomena (or Roisin O’Halloran, to use her real name) not to run away from the convent. And indeed, the other nuns – with the exception of Mother Perpetua – seem inclined to encourage her. Mother ‘Purpiture’ (as she is known in the neighbourhood) gets her come-uppance, and again this story can be read on various levels: did she spontaneously combust? Or did the ever-lurking Judd McEvoy have something to do with it? As Father Angwin muses: “It is a wise man who can tell the firefighter from the arsonist”.
Demonic figures abound: Judd McEvoy is seen as a demonic figure, though he is, in his own words, merely an onlooker. Fludd himself is apparently a con-man: neither priest nor doctor, but convincingly impersonating the new curate. Is he an incarnation of the devil, or simply an opportunist? I find it intriguing that Mantel chose to name the book after this character. He is intriguing and also rather attractive in his self-assuredness and his ability to get the parishioners, priests and nuns (apart from Purpiture) onside.
Mantel deals in this novel with great complexity in the Catholic faith. This is not just a tale of one Catholic’s rejection of the religion they grew up with, and the associated guilt. The religious storyline takes in Father Angwin’s attachment to the old rites (statues of saints, Latin mass) as opposed to the bishop’s iconoclastic tendency – and touches on the hypocrisy that allows the bishop to take this stance, when in his earlier life he was a vocal proponent of everything Angwin holds dear. It goes into minute and ridiculous detail on matters of doctrine: it is permissible to fry fish in beef fat on a fast day? Can you eat jam on a fast day? Mantel clearly knows (or has researched) her Catholic doctrine. But she is not just sending up the faith of her birth. She takes in penitence, contrition, evil (in various forms), and suffering.
Philomena/Roisin is Irish, and there is a contrast drawn between the firm faith shown by Irish Catholics, and the catholicism she encounters in North West England. She is drawn to the former, and abhors the latter. But in the end, she makes a her choice and leaves both behind her. The reader is left wondering what will become of this woman. I can’t help thinking that hers will not be a good end.