Mantrapped by Fay Weldon

On the stairways to heaven and hell
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The Independent Culture


"It's unlucky to cross on the stairs." We lived at the top of the house and Ada lived in the middle. She had control of access to the lavatory and the front door. Ada had the words "They shall not pass" engraved on her heart. Indeed, we often did not pass, hopping up and down from foot to foot, desperate to get the khazi. I thought Ada made up the superstition of the stairs just to spite us. Now I learn from Fay Weldon - and I have learnt much from Fay Weldon over the years - that it really is unlucky to cross on the stairs. The soul of the person going up can cross with the soul of the person going down.

Peter is lean, young, clever and works for a newspaper. He's a facts man, with a speciality in weapons of mass destruction. Trisha is a failed, ageing actress, who won the lottery, lost the money and is now living in reduced circumstances above a dry cleaners. It's on the steps, leading to her miserable flat, that the two souls transmute.

That's the starting point for the novel side of Mantrapped, but it's not all that goes on between Weldon's new covers. While the novel's characters climb through the twists and turns of their story, she charts the ups and downs of her own life. The two narratives are forever crossing, and souls passing, through that strangely thin membrane that separates fact from fiction.

Weldon's fiction is full of fancy that, years on, becomes fact. Write something, she finds, however bizarre, and eventually it will happen. Her books are also, as she now realises, full of warnings to herself. Her fictional characters desperately signalled to her what was going on in her real world, but she paid them no heed.

Trisha, now in Peter's body, looks down at her new hands - they are big, hairy and useful; they bewilder her. Fay Weldon's hands are like her mother's - strong and practical. Through the ruthlessly honest, autobiographical pages of this book, her hands scrub floors, wring out washing, rear children and get on with the practical stuff. The same hands scribble and type, turning out her modern gothic tales of she-devils, clones, of life upstairs and life downstairs.

Strange things do happen, Weldon warns as she earns the money, pays the bills and stacks the washing. Her husband of 30 years, who was unfaithful, died the day their divorce came through. Her mother went from weaving reed baskets on the Cornish moors to directing Tube trains at Gloucester Road.

Sylvia Plath wept and suffered round the corner from her chaotic, seemingly happy home. Strange presences lurk on the stairs of houses she has lived in; the logical boundaries of the real world warp, bend and break down. That's why this brilliant, innovative book, this rich mix of fact and fiction, is so compelling. Fay never tries to be fey.

I am back in the house where Ada once controlled the middle stairs. A practical man lives in her room now. He likes machines and numbers. He mends things with common sense and tools and does not believe in fancy or superstition. "Don't pass on the stairs," he said to me just the other day; "it's unlucky."

Fay Weldon will be at the Cheltenham Festival on 9 October. (01242 227979; www.cheltenhamfestivals.co.uk)

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