Stranded in the Dark

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street

by Hilary Mantel
Picador, 278 pp., $14.00 (paper)

Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel; drawing by David Levine

“Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane.” Hilary Mantel begins her dazzlingly written memoir by quoting Orwell, and then refuting him:

Persiflage is my nom de guerre…. I stray away from the beaten path of plain words into the meadow of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes. And as for transparency—windowpanes undressed are a sign of poverty, aren’t they? How about some nice net curtains, so I can look out but you can’t see in?… Besides, windowpane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness. Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words.

—from Giving Up the Ghost

Not “persiflage” so much as a virtuoso’s love of language and its myriad shimmering associations would seem to best characterize Hilary Mantel’s work. Among contemporary British writers she is a rarity: a writer of subtlety and depth as engaged by the experimental possibilities of the novel as by its traditional “realist” concerns. As Giving Up the Ghost is a highly unorthodox account of what is essentially unsayable about the inward uncharted life (“…a complicated sentence that I am always trying to finish…and put behind me”), so Mantel’s eight novels and story collection Learning to Talk (2003) are eloquent statements of intense spiritual apprehension and abrupt loss, and the mystery of such loss:

There was a time when the air was packed with spirits, like flies on an August day. Now I find that the air is empty. There is only man and his concerns.

(from Fludd)

Or, as the eighteenth-century Irish Giant, O’Brien, ruminates:

[We] are the sons and daughters of gods and kings. [We] are the inheritors of the silver tree amongst whose branches rest all the melodies of the world. And now without a pot to piss in.

(from The Giant, O’Brien)

In an early preface to Giving Up the Ghost, included in Learning to Talk but unfortunately excised from the formal memoir, Mantel speaks of her childhood as “haunted”; though, in time, she would marry, and travel far, and become a writer, yet the ghosts of childhood accompanied her and, in time, were joined by others: “the wistful phantoms of her unborn children.” Perhaps this helps to explain why Mantel’s works of fiction differ so radically from one another, and why she has no single but rather singular styles, ranging from the visionary to the vernacular, the rhetoric of tragedy and the stammering speechlessness of diminished suburban lives.

Hilary Mantel was born in 1952 in the mill village of Hadfield, on the edge of Derbyshire moorland where “the wretched weather encouraged a grim view of life.” The child of Roman Catholic parents, she was well educated in a convent school, studied law at the University of London, married young, and lived with her geologist husband for…

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