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 on 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 worldly-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.”