‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel

EightMonths

Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 298 pages; 2004.

Take a look at Hilary Mantel’s back catalogue and I defy you to name another living British author with such a diverse range of subjects and genres under his or her belt. I’ve only read two of Mantel’s books — the delicious black comedy Beyond Black and her critically acclaimed memoir Giving up the Ghost — but have been keen to explore more of her work.

Eight Months in Ghazzah Street, originally published in 1988, came much recommended by visitors to this blog. It turned out to be a superb, insidiously creepy read, the kind of story that gets under the skin and has you throwing glances over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching you.

Repression and secrecy

It’s set in Saudi Arabia, a highly secretive and repressive society, where the religious police keep a close watch on everything, there are strict laws about what you can wear in public and women are not allowed to drive.

Into this restrictive and claustrophobic world come British expats Frances and Andrew Shore. Andrew, an engineer, has a job working for a private construction company in Jeddah. Frances, a cartographer, is forbidden from working, because of her gender, so she must spend her days “keeping house”.

Despite the fact that both are used to strange cultures — they lived in Zambia, where poverty, violence and corruption went hand in hand, for many years — Frances is immediately uncomfortable in her new surroundings. Instead of living in an expat compound, they’ve chosen to live among the natives, in an apartment block in a quiet neighbourhood. But everything is walled in and even one of the doorways has been bricked up, creating a cavern-like abode rarely penetrated by daylight.

Not long into their stay Andrew tells her about a psychiatrist’s study into the stress on immigrant workers, and you know his words are going to be prophetic:

‘When you get here and everything’s so strange, you feel isolated and
got at – that’s Phase One. But then you learn how to manage daily life,
and for a while the place begins to seem normal, and you’ll even defend
the way things are done here, you’ll start explaining to newcomers that
it’s all right really – that’s Phase Two. You coast along, and then
comes Phase Three, the second wave of paranoia. And this time around it
never goes.’

Leaving the house becomes almost impossible. Even a stroll down the street, wearing her “baggiest smock and sandals”, is beset with unwanted attention from leering men:

A man in a Mercedes truck slowed to a crawl beside her. ‘I give you a
lift, madam?’ She ignored him. Quickened her step. ‘Tell me where you
want to go, madam. Just jump right in.’ He leaned across, as if to open
the near door. Frances turned and stared into his face; her own face
bony, white, suffused with a narrow European rage. The man laughed. He
waved a hand, dismissively, as if he were knocking off a fly, and drove
away.

With not much else to do, Frances befriends the Muslim women living in the building and finds herself unable to come to terms with the religious and cultural differences between them. She finds a similar discord with the expatriate community in which she is expected to socialise.

Before long paranoia takes ahold. Knowing that the apartment above her is empty, Frances begins to hear unexplained noises — a woman sobbing, footsteps and furniture moving around. When she sees a strange presence in the apartment block’s stairwell, she’s convinced that something illegal is going on, but no one, including her husband, believes her when she voices her concerns. Perhaps she’s going stir crazy after all?

On the verge of a nervous breakdown 

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a psychological thriller of the finest order. It reads like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but because Frances is an intelligent worldy-wise woman, you know that her fears aren’t fickle.

Mantel builds up the tension slowly but surely, revealing Frances’ increasing sense of foreboding through diary entries that are interspersed throughout the third-person narrative. It’s a highly effective device.

Interestingly, the story does not paint a very flattering portrait of Saudi Arabia, but Mantel, who lived in Jeddah with her husband, a geologist, for four years in the 1980s, makes no bones about this. In the reader’s guide that comes with this edition, she writes: “When you come across an alien culture you must not automatically respect it. You must sometimes  pay it the compliment of hating it.”

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22 thoughts on “‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel

  1. I loved Mantel’s memoir Giving Up The Ghost and I have Wolf Hall to read but you’ve just gone and made me want to read this book first – right now, in fact. Sounds like a good book for book group discussion.

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  2. Hi Samantha! Yes, this would make a great book group book as there’s so much to discuss here. Frances really can’t under the women who live behind the veil, and yet the women who wear the veil actually like wearing it. That, in itself, would make a great discussion. It became clear upon reading this that Frances was imposing her Western views on these women, and yet these women were trying to impose their eastern views on her.

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  3. I think Hilary Mantel is one of the best British writers of my generation. I’ve read all her books, and they are all wonderfully well written, and as you say, so diverse in subject matter.
    Her novel about the French Revolution, ‘A Place of Greater Safety’ is an absolute masterpiece, and helped me to understand how frightening and volatile societies are during a period of revolution.
    At the moment I’m about two thirds of the way through ‘Wolf Hall’ and am starting to read more and more slowly as I don’t want to get to the end! This really deserves to win the Booker Prize.

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  4. I loved this book very much and Hilary Mantel in general – I agree with herschelian above. It’s just reminded me that I sitll want to read her Vacant Posession…

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  5. I’ve just borrowed “Vacant Possession” at the library as my first Mantel book, inspired by this FIVE-STAR-review.
    (Just finished Niland’s “Shiralee” from another FIVE-STAR-review.)
    I am a bit turned off by the fact that some of her works (incl. “Vacant..”) are noted for their great humour — I don’t really like literature that tries too hard to be funny… I prefer serious stuff with some funny moments, Amazon reviews mentions “laugh yourself silly” … simply doesn’t sound like my kind of book.
    But on the other hand, Mantel seems to have tackled more serious subject matters as well.

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  6. I don’t think you’ll find her books are obviously ha-ha funny, but have moments of black humour in them, such as Beyond Black. Any writer trying too hard to make readers laugh is, I agree, a bit of a turn-off.
    So, what did you think of The Shiralee? Hope you liked it.

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  7. It’s a brilliant book, isn’t it? Honestly, I raced through it in a matter of days. My sister lives in Abu Dhabi and her husband works in construction, so it rang a few familiar bells for me! I’ve told my sister she MUST read this one, but I doubt she’ll find it for sale over there, I should suspect it’s probably on the UAE’s banned books list!

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  8. You have me itching tot read A Place of Greater Safety now!
    I do think she’s an under-appreciated author, and part of me wonders if it’s gender bias, because few female British writers get lauded, whereas everyone worships Amis, McEwan etc
    I haven’t read Wolf Hall, but I’d be delighted if she won the Booker, if only to recognise her brilliant writing career.

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  9. I loved “Shiralee”.
    It reminded me a bit of Steinbeck’s great classic “Of Mice And Men” — the search for occasional farm work, traveling with a burden (in Macauley’s case a small child, in Mice+Men a slightly retarded large child).
    The kind of ha-ha funny writers I do NOT like are Tom Sharpe and David Lodge. Some may disagree…

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  10. Phew. Glad I didn’t give you a bum steer on that one! Yes, it reminds me of Mice and Men too, I just hadn’t realised it until you mentioned it.
    Never read Sharpe or Lodge so can’t really comment.

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  11. I think after having read Wolf Hall and just totally and utterly loving it, it could be in the run for my book of the year, Mantel is someone I now need to really get more reading time with and this one sounds perfect, especially as you gave it a whoping 5 stars! Yes this is most definately going on the wishlist!

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  12. I haven’t read Wolf Hall, but from what I can tell Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is COMPLETELY different in so many ways, so whether you like it as much as me will remain to be seen. I’m now tracking down her back catalogue, as I plan on reading the complete set. I think she’s brilliant.

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  13. I have never heard of this author but I so want to read this book after this excellent review. It is on my short list. Thanks!!

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  14. She’s definitely an under-rated/under-appreciated British author, but if she wins the Booker Prize next week she’s going to be EVERYWHERE!! (I hope she wins.)

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  15. Hi!
    I cam across your fabulous blog doing research for my own blog in which I am chronicling my sttempt to read my way throgugh every country in the world. I was trying to find a good book for Saudi Arabia and having already heard excellent reviews about Eight Months on Ghazzah Street did a search and up popped your blog. Having read your review, I am definitely going with this one for that country. I had been a little Mantel-shy as I didn’t enjoy The Giant O’Brien but am willing to have my faith restored 🙂 Would love any other suggestions you can give me for books you have read that particularly invoke the countries in which they are set and if you have the time, please check out my blog at http://www.theliterarynomad.com
    I am definitely going to become a regular reader of yours!

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  16. Hi Alex,
    I have a “reviews by setting” bit in the menu, down there on the right, which might help. But I really am not that well read when it comes to “world literature”.
    Best of luck with your venture. Sounds like an intriguing challenge.

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  17. I would like to thank you for the review of this book. If it wasn’t for this review I would have easily overlooked this unique and intriguing book.

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