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Stranded in the Dark

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 five years in Botswana and for four years in Saudi Arabia before returning to England in 1987. Mantel has written of these very different places with a sharp yet sympathetic eye for regional essences and idiosyncrasies: even in her home territory, she sustains the vigilance of the perennial outsider, a cultural anthropologist of her own kind.

Her experimentation with genre and language is never self-displaying or distracting but fully in the service of her material. She is the author of the emotionally wrenching “family” novel A Change of Climate (1994), set alternately in upscale, semi-rural, contemporary Norfolk and in the desperately impoverished Africa of Cape Town and Botswana of thirty years before, and she is the author of the fabulist parable The Giant, O’Brien (1998), set in mythic eighteenth-century Ireland and Britain. Her most ambitious novel is the massive, magisterial A Place of Greater Safety (1992), a meticulously rendered fictional history of the French Revolution, near nine hundred pages in small print. Her most curious novel is the magical, alchemical Fludd (1989), a tale of unexpected Christian grace and forgiveness set in the timeworn village of Fetherhoughton where, by tradition, “a multiplicity of devils” abides: “St. Hilary tells us that each devil had his particular bad smell.”

Mantel’s riskiest literary venture so far would seem to be a pair of demonically matched novels in the Muriel Spark/Iris Murdoch tradition of comic-grotesque satire, Every Day Is Mother’s Day (1985) and Vacant Possession (1986), which cross and recross much of the same narrative territory from varying perspectives, but which finally fail to transcend the genre limitations of fiction in which fundamentally silly, contemptible, or psychopathological characters are thrown together in a tizzy of a clockwork plot, accelerating to the point of impact; yet even here, Mantel spends more time convincing us of the human worth of her hapless characters than Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch usually do, and the novels’ predominant theme is timely: “…how the preoccupations of the sane reflect those of the insane. And vice versa, of course.”

Mantel’s most conventional novel is An Experiment in Love (1995), a disingenuously narrated coming-of-age story of a bright, impoverished, self-absorbed girl from the provinces who studies law at the University of London, and who narrowly escapes death in a final, surreal conflagration. An Experiment in Love is so conventionally written, and for Mantel so relatively unimaginative, one wonders at first if it might be a sly parody of genre predecessors like Margaret Drabble’s Jerusalem the Golden, but it would seem to be in fact an early, lightly sketched treatment of the more deftly executed autobiographical material of Learning to Talk and the far more oblique, mysterious, and obsessive concerns of Giving Up the Ghost. Perhaps the most readable, compelling, and politically timely of Mantel’s novels is Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, originally published in the UK in 1988, a dramatic distillation of Mantel’s ordeal in Saudi Arabia:

My life in Saudi Arabia, for at least two years, was like life in jail. Simple force of will—or the force of simple will—could move the furniture and rip off the wardrobe doors. At times of stress, or on the brink of change, you can seem to act as a conduit for whatever disorganized, irrational forces are in the air. Shut in those dark rooms [in a company-provided flat in the city of Jeddah], life going on elsewhere, my body subject to strange mutations, I accumulated an anger that would rip a roof off.

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street reflects, in its subtly mounting tension and ironic illumination, the explosively repressed emotions of a Western, educated woman living in an alien culture in which the female is “revered” by being imprisoned in a nexus of religious/social constrictions; it’s a cri de coeur that draws the reader into its protagonist’s experience in a foreign culture as enigmatic, and as sinister, as the North African territories of Paul Bowles.

Though there are certainly common threads of concern—moral, politi-cal, metaphysical, aesthetic—that link these disparate works of fiction, yet the novels are so distinctive, and so intensely realized, one might be convinced that they have been written by a half-dozen writers. And when we learn in Giving Up the Ghost that Mantel was desperately ill for much of her adult life, suffering from a (misdiagnosed) case of endometriosis, her accomplishment seems all the more astonishing.

I knew the facts…but I didn’t know what it would feel like to live under them”—so it’s belatedly realized by Frances Shore, the young, attractive, rather too inquisitive and independent-minded British-born woman who comes to live with her engineer husband in the Saudi Arabian city Jeddah, in 1984, in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. Frances is trained as a cartographer: an appropriate analogue for the novelist’s vocation. Like Hilary Mantel before her, Shore suffers from an extreme case of culture shock in this unchartable place for which the only available map is outdated and useless. (“Cartography by Kafka,” Frances writes on the map.) She is told matter-of-factly that, in the Muslim theocracy, as a woman “you’re not a person any more”; it’s a shock to her, as to the reader, to learn that, once she’s in Saudi Arabia, she can’t leave without an exit visa, and she can’t acquire an exit visa from the Saudi government without the permission of her “sponsor,” her husband. In this stifling environment in which the official year is 1405 it shouldn’t be much of a surprise for Frances to discover that the front door to the Shores’ flat had been bricked up by the previous tenant, a Muslim husband who didn’t want his wife talking with her neighbors.

A sleekly contemporary reimagining of the classic gothic tradition (see The Turn of the Screw, Jane Eyre, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca), in which a naive but courageous young woman finds herself in a mysterious, threatening environment that must be continuously decoded, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is also a very funny dark comedy of manners. One can imagine Hilary Mantel, upon whom nothing seems to be lost, unobtrusively taking notes on the well-intentioned advice of her sister-expatriate British wives:

You ought to get some kaftans really. Especially for the souk [market], you know, and for when you’re out without your husband. The shop people won’t serve you, if they don’t think you’re properly covered up.” Mrs. Parsons looked her over. “…You’ve got that fairish hair, you see, fair hair’s always an attraction to them.”

I thought I’d be all right if I covered my arms.”

Well, of course, there aren’t any hard and fast rules.” Mrs. Parsons passed a hand over her own bare forearm. “It isn’t arms they mind, I understand, it’s legs. Or if you want to just go out in your ordinary clothes, what you should do is get an abaya, you know, those black cloak things the Saudi ladies wear, and then you can just fling it on over everything.”

Frances is reassured by an “enlightened” Muslim woman neighbor who has lived in England that women condemned as adulteresses are not actually stoned to death: “Not nowadays. They just throw a few stones, as a ritual, and then somebody shoots [them].” Nor are the amputation punishments for lesser crimes so cruel as Westerners think, for an anesthetic is usually used:

When they do an amputation,” Yasmin looked down at her own long hands, with their lacquered nails, “there is a doctor in attendance. It doesn’t go poisoned, they make sure of that. Really, Frances, it isn’t like you think.”

It’s remarked that the brutal rapes of two Australian women tourists were only to be expected since the victims were wearing shorts. Frances, who had previously lived in Botswana, in a far less stable social environment, is immediately in danger if she steps outside her heavily fortified apartment building. Men cruise their cars past her calling out such endearments as “Madame, I love you… I want to fuck you”; they wave to her to cross the street, then try to run her down. Merely a walk around the block leaves her exhausted, terrorized, and grateful to lock herself back into her air-conditioned prison. As Frances’s frustration, fear, and paranoia mount, she projects her dread onto the mystery of an apparently empty flat above her own, in which she believes she hears voices and sobbing; her suspicions are discounted by her husband, Andrew, who seems to be withdrawing from her.

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