Fetherhoughton, the shabby and provincial village of Hilary Mantel's fifth novel, Fludd
, possesses a charm that is, at best, latent. The surrounding moorland is foreboding, the populace is querulous and ill-educated, and the presiding priest is an atheist. It's 1956, and drabness is general to this English backwater. Until, that is, the appearance of a disarming young priest who, apparently, has been dispatched to wrest Fetherhoughton out of its superstitious stupor. One of the novel's several wonders is that Fludd surpasses all expectations.
Father Angwin, Fetherhoughton's disbelieving priest, has--much to the displeasure of his superiors--grown comfortable with the entrenched, misapprehending devoutness of his flock. Fludd, who may or may not be the curate sent to deliver the wayward, exerts an immediate, if unexpected, influence. He intrigues the townspeople, flusters the church's gaggle of nuns, kindles a welcome self-examination in Father Angwin, and arouses the passion of the young and yearning Sister Philomena. A charge of possibility suddenly animates the village, accompanied by several incidents that seem midway between coincidence and miracle. Fludd, however, remains beset by an insistent disillusionment--his clarity, it seems, arcs outward only.
Mantel's cramped and pliant village is a marvel. Fetherhoughton "wrestles not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world," insists the dour headmistress, Mother Perpetua. A local tobacconist, not so trivially, just might be the devil in human garb. Fludd's gift lies in unearthing all the lovely and fearsome truths buried just beneath the surface. "The frightening thing is that life is fair," he observes, "but what we need... is not justice but mercy." The fruits of this conviction, in Fetherhoughton, are rebellion, self-assertion, and even scandal; but Mantel's lovely tale suggests that difficult possibility is fair compensation for a sloughed predictability. --Ben Guterson
From Publishers Weekly
Originally published in 1989 in the U.K., Mantel's slim, intense novel displays the author's formidable gift for illuminating the darker side of the human heart, offering metaphoric and literal incarnations of the powerful central images of Catholicism. Her circa-1956 setting of Fetherhoughton, a provincial English village surrounded on three sides by gloomy moors, is stark and dreary, a dead end where unwanted people are unceremoniously dumped. Such is the case of Sister Philomena, a sturdy farm girl-turned-nun banished from an Irish convent because her sister Kathleen breaks convent rules. It becomes apparent that Philomena will not fit in anywhere, as she is a strange mix of innocence and knowledge, a sage romantic. Philomena finds an unlikely confidant in Father Angwin, the parish priest, who has lost his faith, thinks the town tobacconist is the devil and fears the threat of a youthful replacement for his post. When a rain-soaked man named Fludd arrives on a stormy night, Angwin assumes it is the newly appointed curate, but even so, the two become close friends and, in time, Angwin sheds his bitterness and paranoia to become a more compassionate, wiser person. Fludd sweeps the nosy housekeeper, Agnes, off her feet with his gentlemanly manners and cool confidence, but Philomena is also strangely attracted to the devilish Fludd, who magically transforms everyone he meets. The monstrous Mother Perpetua, headmistress of the St. Thomas Aquinas School, is the lone exception, and she ends up being a key player in the rural face-off between good and evil. Hawthornden Prize-winner Mantel (The Giant, O'Brien) uses her knack for dry wit and lovely, scene-setting detail to liven up crisp, utilitarian prose, revealing, as her characters do, the ever-surprising divine in the mundane. (June)
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