Nonfiction – paperback; HarperPerennial; 252 pages; 2004.
Hilary Mantel is an award-winning British author of whom I only have a passing acquaintance. I read her last novel, Beyond Black, in early 2006 and very much enjoyed its dark inventiveness, especially her quirky characters and the descriptions of a rather dull and dreary suburban England populated by ghosts.
Giving up the Ghost is her much-lauded memoir, released in 2004 to critical acclaim, and how, having read it, I can see many aspects of her character in Beyond Black‘s narrator, Alison Hart, an overweight psychic. Mantel never goes into specifics, but it’s clear that she has some psychic tendencies, too. On the first page of her memoir she claims to have seen her step-father’s ghost. “I am not perturbed,” she writes. “I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there.”
The book is peppered with other unusual claims, including her sighting of an undefined “creature” in the back garden when she was seven that “has wrapped a strangling hand around my life, and I don’t know how, or what it was”.
There are large gaps in her life’s account, and the narrative, while largely chronological, does jump around a bit. “But in this book I didn’t aim to tell the story of my life,” she writes in the afterword, “just the story of two aspects of it, my childhood and my own childlessness. It was never meant to be the whole story. Stories are never whole.”
This is a good summation of Giving up the Ghost, which can, effectively, be broken into two halves: the first tells of her childhood growing up in a working-class Catholic family in the grim suburb of Hadfield in Manchester in the 1950s; the second of her rather traumatic adulthood filled with a string of misdiagnosed illnesses which render her unable to have children.
By turns the book is funny and sad; it’s often witty but never mawkish; and I came away from it feeling that Mantel had lead a very tough but somehow inspirational life. From the outset Mantel’s childhood was riddled with family secrets — her father disappeared; her mother moved her lover into the house and then moved suburbs to avoid a community scandal — that caused her to live in an “emotional labyrinth”. Even when she escaped the family home and moved to London to begin her university law course, the dark ghosts of the past would not let her go…
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 around my body, nibbling here, stabbing there, flitting every time I tried to put my finger on it.
Written in a clear-eyed prose style, it is, at times, so honest as to be painful. Mantel, herself, admits that she struggles to write much of it. “Once you have learned the habits of secrecy, they aren’t so easy to give up,” she confesses mid-way through the book.
She is particularly frank about her various illnesses, which lead to her stacking on the weight and “accumulating an anger that would rip a roof off”. And the ways in which she comes to terms with her infertility is also painfully candid, the hurt seemingly oozing off the page.
This is not a particularly cheerful read, but it is an inspirational one about chasing dreams, seeking answers and forging your own path in life. I loved it and now that I know more about Hilary Mantel’s life I hope to read more of her fiction very soon.