It may seem, thanks to her ManBooker Prize winning novel 'Wolf Hall' (just out in paperback, Picador: 608 pp., $16), that the novelist Hilary Mantel needs no more attention; but in fact the large body of her work — and she's been publishing for more than 25 years — remains largely unknown, and unread, in this country. "Wolf Hall" inhabits the life of Thomas Cromwell, the man who wrote and rammed through the laws that created the English Reformation, enabling Henry VIII to ditch his first wife and marry Anne Boleyn. It's a story we think we know, thanks to scores of movies and TV shows, but in "Wolf Hall" Mantel makes it new, marrying our fascination with the ruthless glamour of Tudor England to her most mesmerizing fictional gift, the ability to get under the skins and into the heads of her characters, so that even seeming monsters become vivid, present, comprehensible, and we start to love them after all.
This sort of ventriloquizing empathy is arguably the fiction writer's most important and elusive tool, and the paperback release of two much earlier novels, "Every Day Is Mother's Day" (Picador: 226 pp., $14) and its sequel "Vacant Possession" (Picador: 242 pp., $14), show that Mantel had it from the start, even back in the mid-1980s, when these linked books — a brisk and wild double-decker — first appeared.
Mantel, in her fiction, is fascinated by those worlds, magical, mad or otherwise, that hover around the brink of consciousness but nonetheless propel action. At the start of "Every Day Is Mother's Day" she introduces the elderly Evelyn Axon, a medium who is haunted by the idea that her house has been taken over by spirits, turning No. 2 Buckingham Ave. — a decent-sized property on a sedate road in a nondescript northern English town — into a nightmare space all jostled up with the "teeth-baring dead … stranded souls whistling in the cavity walls."
Evelyn lives with her daughter Muriel, a half-witted woman in her 30s who is rarely allowed to step outside. Their lives have been the same for years, running down a narrowing tunnel of cruelty and struggle. Then Evelyn makes a mistake. A neighbor, Mrs. Sidney, whose husband, Arthur, used to work for the bus company and recently died, comes to Evelyn seeking contact and comfort. Evelyn assures Mrs. Sidney that poor old Arthur is "roasting in some unspeakable hell."
It's a wonderful Mantel moment, a grimly funny little dialogue punch that sets off a big chain reaction. Outraged, Mrs. Sidney complains to the people at Social Services and the blundering well-meaning machine of state help starts to knock at Evelyn Axon's door. Muriel is required to leave the house sometimes and go to a day-care center, where she's taught to weave baskets, as if that's going to help.
One of the social workers, meanwhile, an already troubled young woman named Isabel Field, attends an evening class in "Writing for Pleasure and Profit" and by chance meets Mrs. Sidney's son, Colin, "a man on poor terms with his clothes," a sad-sack history teacher looking for ways to escape his wife and young family. Colin takes his seat, and soon he starts an affair with Isabel that threatens to drive him out of his mind.
This is a Hilary Mantel novel — and in Mantel's fiction, mistakes inevitably have consequences, often deadly. Colin's and Isabel's not terribly inspiring sex in the back of a car leads, in the end, to truly terrible violence back at Buckingham Avenue.
"Every Day Is Mother's Day" flits about at first, moving slowly while the narrative snowball gets packed. Soon, though, the book acquires a fierce propulsion that drives straight forward into "Vacant Possession," the novel Mantel wrote immediately afterward and in which she picks up the lives of the same characters, 10 years on. By then Colin Sidney and his family have prospered, although they've made the unwise choice of moving into the fated house that had belonged to Evelyn Axon, buying it cheap after what happened there. Isabel Field has quit social work and turned into an unhappy alcoholic, writing a memoir.
Muriel Axon, released from an insane asylum, has come to believe that her human essence was stolen at birth and she's a changeling. She moves between different identities — a hospital worker, a cleaning woman and Lizzie Blank, a promiscuous good-time girl — while scheming and plotting: "She was not stronger than other women, but quite free from their dread of inflicting pain." Muriel has been turned into a sociopath, though the blunt word does little justice to the witty, richly textured way in which Mantel sets this character talking and thinking.
One night, in her guise as Lizzie Blank, Muriel goes to a club, finding herself assailed in an alley by a big guy named Clyde who searches her out with a flashlight. This, for Clyde, turns out to be a very bad idea:
"He lowered the torch beam decorously. She reached forward and took the torch from him, tickling the back of his hand in a flirtatious way with her long nails. Her face downcast, she turned the beam full on Clyde's genital equipment. Clyde darted back. 'Shy?' she said; half-challenging and very coy. She reached out with her right hand for what was on offer. A thin wail rose to join the noise of the cats. For good measure, she hits him with the torch on the side of the head. It was surprisingly sturdy, she thought, for plastic; she would keep it as a souvenir."
The Sidneys and Isabel Field are characters in whom passion and reason have so stressfully fought so that by now they view the world with a disillusion that is more weary than wise. Muriel Axon, on the other hand, has had emotion and affect sucked out of her like the yolk from an egg. Once she sets her mind on vengeance, there can really be only one winner, and the novel zooms toward an orgy of murder that Mantel renders with hilarious, scary glee. Maybe Mantel's making a feminist point, but something wider is going on too. Her fiction tells us that the individual always matters, and there's no end to specific weirdness of the individual.
As a writer, Mantel seems to need total immersion, in the thoughts and nerves of her characters, in the physical spaces they inhabit, before she finds the stories they want to tell her. These unsettling and unflinching early novels show her learning her craft. A long, drunken dinner party recalls the social barb of Kingsley Amis. There are reminders of Graham Greene and Ruth Rendell when frightening violence almost comically mushrooms from the mulch of the everyday, and the impulsive plotting and use of coincidence suggest Patricia Highsmith.
The geography comes from Mantel's upbringing, however, likewise the concern with class. Mantel's subtle prose and deft wit may sometimes aspire to Jane Austen, and indeed sometimes reach that level, but the England she shows is a hellhole of spite and anger. At the center of the saga of the Axons and the Sidneys (as with Cromwell in "Wolf Hall") is an abused child who seeks power. "Under her wig, under her make-up, she could guarantee that no one would know her from a human being," Muriel Axon reflects, and it is in such moments that these early books predict the central themes of Mantel's later work: the emptiness people feel, the devious lies they tell, what they can bear to do to each other, and the swipes of another's self assertion they never see coming.
Rayner is the author, most recently, of "A Bright and Guilty Place." Paperback Writers appears at http://www.latimes.com/books.