Fetherhoughton is a drab, dreary town somewhere in a magical, half-real 1950s north England, a preserve of ignorance and superstition protected against the advance of reason by its impenetrable moor-fogs. Father Angwin, the town’s cynical priest, has lost his faith, and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sister Philomena strains against the monotony of convent life and the pettiness of her fellow nuns. The rest of the town goes about their lives in a haze, a never-ending procession of grim, grey days stretching ahead of them.
Yet all of that is about to change. A strange visitor appears one stormy night, bringing with him the hint, the taste of something entirely new, something unknown. But who is Fludd? An angel come to shake the Fetherhoughtonians from their stupor, to reawaken Father Angwin’s faith, to show Philomena the nature of love? Or is he the devil himself, a shadowy wanderer of the darkest places in the human heart?
Okay so this was a bit of a cheat. I read this book several years ago, but at that time I was unfamiliar with the concept of magic realism so I wanted to read it again.
This book was published in 1989 long before Mantel became a household name (in households that pay attention to the winners of the Booker Prize), indeed when I first read it she was relatively unknown. It was the second book of hers that I read, the first being Beyond Black another magic realism novel. And as a result of reading both I went on to buy every book of hers I could find.
There have been a flurry of reviews on Goodreads and Amazon recently by people who have read Wolf Hall and want to read more. Some were disappointed. This book is an altogether different beast to her prize-winning tomes - short (less than 200 pages), set in the 1950s and of course magic realism. I loved it the first time, but found so much more to enjoy on second reading. I was perhaps more attuned to the way the magic in the book builds, knowing more now about the lost art of alchemy that underpins this book. As the opening note explains the real Fludd (1574-1637) was a physician, scholar and alchemist. In alchemy, everything has a literal and factual description, and in addition a description that is symbolic and fantastical. The book may appear lightweight (literally and in terms of content), but that is deceiving. Look closer and reflect (as you are reading and afterwards), there is more here than meets the eye. The book (like some other magic realism novels) has been compared to a fairytale, which can be considered both a criticism or praise depending on your point of view. For me fairytales are about eternal patterns and truths. The theme of transformation is central to them, as it is in this book. Fludd transforms and redeems the people he comes in contact with.
The 1950's village setting is bleak, but Mantel brings a humour to the book, which is both wicked and humane. Open the book at nearly any page and you will find a gem of description:
The women liked to stand on their doorsteps. This standing was what they did. Recreational pursuits were for men : football, billiards, keeping hens. Treats were doled out to men, as a reward for good behaviour: cigarettes, beer at the Arundel Arms. Religion and the public library, were for children. Women only talked.
She is laughing, but she is not laughing at her characters. This is a book about happy endings.
As I have observed in reviews of magic realism books (and indeed of my own) some readers are frustrated by the lack of clear answers. Who or what is Fludd? Mantel plays with us - hinting that he might be the devil: He as a handy type with tongs, Father Angwin could tell or maybe the local tobacconist is as Father Angwin believes. What exactly did happen to Sister Perpetua as she pursued the fleeing nun? Maybe these readers should heed to the message of this book - there is more than one way of looking at the world.