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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.

Andrew Shore, in his mid-thirties, is one of the numerous “expatriate staff” of British and American engineers, architects, managers, and entrepreneurs drawn to Saudi Arabia at the time of the oil boom. There is no idealism involved in the effort of these men to help develop a third-world country, only a cynical wish to make as much money as possible: “It’s called the golden handcuffs.” Andrew’s salary is three times what he would make in Britain, but in affluent Jeddah the cost of living is high; well-to-do Saudis and expatriates are obsessed with material goods:

The supermarkets are all well stocked, but there is always some elusive item; this breeds the desire to go to more supermarkets. Shopping is the highest good in Saudi life. Every need and whim under one roof—Lebanese pastries, a Mont Blanc pen, a diamond snake with emerald eyes; a pound of pistachio nuts, two tickets to Bermuda, a nylon prayer rug with a built-in compass…. The car parks consume acres, the facades glitter like knives….

Frances notes Muslim women, “trussed up in their modesty like funereal laundry, women with layers of thick black cloth where their faces should be. Only their hands reached out, sallow hands heavy with gold.”

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a novel of steadily increasing tension, culminating in a sequence of violent acts that remain tantalizingly mysterious though we must guess, as Frances Shore does, that the British company for which her husband works is in some way complicit with Saudi police in the cover-up: the allegedly empty flat overhead, a probable site of torture and murder, is furnished in a way identical to her own. Frances realizes the politically pragmatic wisdom behind a remark by one of her husband’s superiors: “There are things that might be true, but you can’t afford to believe them.”

Though always interesting, and frequently riveting, Giving Up the Ghost has the somewhat improvised feel of several memoirist projects fitted together into a thematic yet not an emotional unity, undertaken after the death of the author’s stepfather, Jack, whose role in the memoir turns out to be neither sympathetic nor major, and symbolically begun at the time of the author’s fiftieth birthday:

You come to this place, midlife. You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led. And your houses are haunted by the person you might have been. The wraiths and phantoms creep under your carpets and between the warp and weft of your curtains…. You think of the children you might have had but didn’t…. When you think you’re pregnant, and you’re not, what happens to that child that has already formed in your mind? You keep it filed in a drawer of your consciousness, like a short story that wouldn’t work after the opening lines.

As this passage suggests, Giving Up the Ghost isn’t about giving up ghosts so much as evoking them, giving shape to emotions too fleeting and enigmatic to be otherwise known.

The first and most unexpected of Mantel’s ghosts is her own lost child-self, a startlingly confident and rather bellicose girl known in the mill village of Hadfield as “Ilary.” Though Ilary’s Irish grandmother had become a mill worker at the age of twelve, and her mother was put into a mill at fourteen, and there were few adult models for the child to emulate apart from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, Ilary takes it for granted that she is a very special little girl: one who will in fact become a boy. In an evocation of Mantel’s technique of “extravagant simile” here is the six-year-old Ilary fantasizing herself a vengeful knight errant:

I felt my man’s spirit aroused, my ardor clenching inside my chest like a fist within a mailed glove. Saddle my charger: I’ll canter up [the] Street and decapitate him [the father of a friend, who has been beaten by him]. My sword arm twitched, and I pictured one lazy, scything stroke…then the head, bouncing over the cobbles.

Already as a child of three Ilary reacts to a little girl neighbor, a Protestant, in a yet more exalted manner:

Oh, is she [my friend]? I have some vague idea about the girl. I seem to think that before this we were carried like rival sultans to view each other, our retainers bearing us to the rendezvous in their arms; or bounced down Bankbottom in our big springing perambulators, to wave our woolly mittens at each other, and acknowledge each other with dips of our bonnets; like commanders from rival galleons bobbing on the sea.

This is very far from Orwell’s “plain words”; perhaps, to some readers, too far. Mantel’s sufflated language is best appreciated as the memoirist’s effort at evoking a mythic child-self that makes no concession to literal, but only symbolic, credibility. This Ilary is so precocious as to have speculated, at the age of seven:

The doctrine of transubstantiation caused me no headache. I was not surprised to find that a round wafer was the body of Jesus Christ. I’d been saying for years that things like this occurred, if people would only notice. Spaniel and cow fused their nature, so did man and plant: look at Mr. Aldous, his milky stalks for arms. Girl could change to boy: though this had not happened to me, and I knew now it never would.

Yet, in this grim provincial landscape in which “theology and geography had got inextricably mixed,” the child Ilary is fantasizing a priestly vocation, fascinated by the possibilities of confession and absolution of sins.

Unsuited to being a child, Ilary is imbued by her memoirist with remarkable fantasies of empowerment, perhaps to contrast with the more conventional memoirist-portraits of passive, victimized, muted girls about whom we have all read, and with whom we are made to commiserate. Taught by her grandfather to fight back when harassed at school, Ilary takes his advice to heart:

Later, when I am a big girl, ten years old, a true bully arises in our own class. He is a short boy with shorn hair, and his name is Gary, which is a bully name if you ever heard one. He is broad, white, muscled, compact, and made of rubber. He takes my beret and throws it into the ditch. I declare I will make war on him. You can’t bash Gary C.! the little girls say. I go after him, pale with fury, spitting with wrath. He stands his ground. I strike out. My fists sink into his torso and bounce back. The feeling is curiously soothing. I need have no conscience about him. He’s made of some substance denser than flesh. I suppose he hits me back, but it doesn’t hurt…. Gary’s like a creature the knight meets in a forest, you lop its head off, and it regrows.

Where in contemporary memoirs by women sexual abuse is “the usual horror,” Mantel’s claim of the horrific is more original: at the age of seven Ilary is visited by, not the Devil, nor even a devil, but an ineffable emanation of evil:

I can sense a spiral, a lazy buzzing swirl, like flies; but it is not flies. There is nothing to see. There is nothing to smell. There is nothing to hear. But its motion, its insolent shift, makes my stomach heave. I can sense—at the periphery, the limit of all my senses—the dimensions of the creature. It is as high as a child of two. Its depth is a foot, fifteen inches. The air stirs around it, invisibly. I am cold, and rinsed by nausea. I cannot move. I am shaking; as if pinned to the moment, I cannot wrench my gaze away. I am looking at a space occupied by nothing….

I pluck my eyes away. It is like plucking them out of my head. Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.

For Mantel this vision, or hallucination, signals both the end of childhood and the “beginning of shame.”

Yet the memoir reverts to its previous tone of precocious self-sufficiency and sardonic observation, as Ilary takes note of her mother’s live-in lover, Jack, an exhibitionist body-builder and would-be writer (for Health & Strength) who seemingly overnight supplants her father in his own household: Jack is a bullying presence never explained to the reader, as perhaps he was never explained to Ilary, though he becomes, in time, her “stepfather.” (Strangely little is made of Ilary’s father, Henry, who disappears from the family, and from the memoir. Only a wisp of a ghost remains, unoccluded by sentiment.) Ilary advances from her local, poorly staffed grammar school to an upscale, academically rigorous convent school in a nearby village where she is befriended by the “tiny, fierce, horribly feared” Top Nun, and eventually becomes Top Girl: “I was entitled to a gown of scarlet with a gold stripe, which I wore with an air of sarcasm.”

Giving Up the Ghost divides into two unequal parts, differing considerably in tone: “Ilary” is replaced by the adult, not-so-self-composed Hilary, whose arrival is signaled by these cryptic words:

By the time I was twenty I was living in a slum house in Sheffield. I had a husband and no money; those things I could explain. I had a pain which I could not explain; it seemed to wander about my body, nibbling here, stabbing there, flitting every time I tried to put my finger on it.

This marks the onslaught of Mantel’s long-misdiagnosed gynecological condition, endometriosis, which radically changes her life. Instead of receiving medical treatment, Mantel is prescribed a range of mood-altering medications from tranquilizers and anti-depressants to powerful antipsychotic drugs: “The more I said I had a physical illness, the more they said I had a mental illness.” Most of the remainder of Giving Up the Ghost is a harrowing account to set beside such classics as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

If you didn’t respond to the first wave of drugs—if they didn’t fix you, or you wouldn’t take them—the possibility arose that you were not simply neurotic, hypochondriacal, and a bloody nuisance, but heading for a psychotic breakdown, for the badlands of schizophrenia, a career on the back ward. To head off this disaster, doctors would prescribe what were then called the major tranquilizers, a group of drugs intended to combat thought disorder and banish hallucinations and delusions.

The next time I saw Dr. G. he forbade me to write: or, more precisely, he said, “I don’t want you writing.” He put more energy into this statement than any I had heard him make.

Mantel suffers attacks of akathisia (a side effect of antipsychotic medication that mimics madness, causing severe panic) and a morbid weight gain of more than 50 percent, a health threat in itself and deeply humiliating to an attractive young woman who had always taken her thinness for granted.

I never was a size 16. I shot past it effortlessly…. My skin turned gray, shading to slate blue as the autumn came on. My legs swelled and ached. Fluid puffed up my eyelids. Some mornings my head looked like a soccer ball. I was glad when my husband’s job took us to Saudi Arabia, where women wear drapery rather than clothes.

By the time Mantel is properly diagnosed, her condition has become so extreme that there is no remedy but a hysterectomy, which brings with it hospital infections. When she informs one of her string of incompetent doctors, his reply is: “There’s one good thing, anyway. Now you won’t have to worry about birth prevention.”

Giving Up the Ghost ends with a lament for childlessness, made by a middle-aged woman who, when young, hadn’t wanted children. In the background there is a husband whom Mantel marries while both are undergraduates at Sheffield University, later divorces, and still later remarries; she lives with him in Botswana, Saudi Arabia, and in various houses in England; in this memoir of ghosts, he is the most ghostly. Mantel is reticent about her family, perhaps properly; yet it’s something of a surprise to learn belatedly that she has an emotional attachment to her mother and brothers, and any feeling for her stepfather. The reader is provoked to wonder if the self-assured Ilary hasn’t been a confabulation when Mantel remarks, near the end of the memoir, “I had always felt that I deserved very little, that I would probably not be happy in life, and that the safest thing was to lie down and die.”

Memoirs are not lives, but texts alluding to lives. The technique of memoir resembles that of fiction: selection, distillation, dramatization. Inevitably, much is omitted. Inevitably, much is distorted. Memories are notoriously unreliable, particularly in individuals prone to mythmaking and the settling of old scores, which may be all of us. Much in Giving Up the Ghost is memorable, but no passages are quite so convincing as those in which the memoirist speaks frankly and simply:

Writing about your past is like blundering through your house with the lights fused, a hand flailing for points of reference. You locate the stolid wardrobe, and its door swings open at your touch, opening on the cavern of darkness within. Your hand touches glass, you think it is a mirror, but it is the window. There are obstacles to bump and trip you, but what is more disconcerting is a sudden empty space, where you can’t find a handhold and you know that you are stranded in the dark.

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