5 books, Book lists

5 of the best psychological thrillers

5-books-200pixI’ve always loved psychological thrillers or suspense novels. I read the first one when I was just 10 years old — Robert C. O’Brien’s The Silver Crown — and loved the fear and sense of foreboding it created so much that I must have read it a dozen times without ever getting tired of the high-stakes adventure story of a girl on the run from wicked men wearing dark hoods. I think my exploration of this genre as an adult is largely about me trying to recapture those feelings I first felt as a kid.

Of course, there’s a lot of mediocre books out there, so when Naomi from Consumed by Ink left a comment asking me to recommend some titles for those who don’t usually read the genre, it got me thinking: what are the best psychological thrillers I’ve read, the ones that are a cut above the rest?

And this is what I’ve come up with.

The books have been arranged in alphabetical order by author’s name — hyperlinks will take you to my full reviews:

Up-above-the-worldUp Above the World’ by Paul Bowles (1966)

This is a masterpiece of suspense writing. It’s about a married American couple on holiday in Puerto Rico. When the wife loans a woman $10 they find they can’t shake her off.  But that’s the least of their concerns, because no sooner have they got rid of her, than the husband falls ill and his wife has to enlist the help of a fellow expat American to help them. Except this man isn’t quite what he seems and has nefarious plans for them all. The couple’s exotic holiday quickly descends into a vacation from hell. It’s creepy and unnerving — and you’ll race through it wanting to know what happens next.

The-memory-game‘The Memory Game’ by Nicci French (1997)

This is the first book by husband-and-wife writing team Nicci Gerard and Sean French, but I could easily have chosen almost any from their extensive back catalogue, many of which are reviewed on this site. I read this one not long after it first came out (and before I began blogging, so can’t provide a link to a review) and was swept away by its tale of Jane Martello, who discovers a body buried in her garden. The remains are 25 years old and they belong to her childhood friend, Natalie. How did they get there? And how did Natalie meet her end? Jane starts seeing a therapist to try to recover her lost memories — and what she finds out will have you furiously turning the pages…

Talented-Mr-RipleyThe Talented Mr Ripley’ by Patricia Highsmith (1955)

A European adventure told from the perspective of a young American conman and murderer, this is a precisely plotted suspense novel of the finest order. But unlike many suspense novels, where you fear for the good guys that have found themselves in a difficult situation, in this fast-paced story you actually cheer on the perpetrator. In this case it is Mr Ripley, a 23-year-old loner, who commits two atrocious murders while on the run in Italy. It’s deftly written, features a cast of terrific characters and is full of hold-your-breath moments.

TenderwireTenderwire’ by Claire Kilroy (2007)

This is the story of Eva Tyne, an Irish violinist living and working in New York, who goes on a rather dangerous mission to buy a rare violin of dubious provenance. Eva, who narrates the story in a menacing kind of voice, is fragile and mentally unstable, so perhaps it’s no surprise she gets caught up in the collision of two worlds — the criminal underworld and the refined world of classical music. But when she buys the 17th century violin from a dodgy Russian she met in a bar, she’s naive to think that there will be no repercussions or payback. Does she get away with it? You’ll need to read this novel to find out.

Eight-months-on-ghazzah-streetEight months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel (1998)

Frances, a British expat living in Jeddah with her husband, suspects something strange is going on upstairs in the flat above hers, but cannot convince anyone else that anything is wrong. This is the premise behind Mantel’s brilliant and deeply disturbing psychological thriller set in Saudi Arabia. It’s the kind of insidiously creepy read that gets under the skin and has you throwing glances over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching you. Is Frances just paranoid, or are her fears well founded?

Have you read any of these books? Or can you recommend another good psychological thriller?

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fourth Estate, Hilary Mantel, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘An Experiment in Love’ by Hilary Mantel

An-experiment-in-love

Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 272 pages; 2010.

Whenever I feel like I am reading too many newly published books, I seek out something that has been languishing on my shelves for more than a year or two. In this case, it wasn’t so much my shelves, but my Kindle — yes, I have a virtual TBR as well as a physical one — and that was how I came to read Hilary Mantel‘s An Experiment in Love, which was first published in 1995.

I have only read a couple of Mantel’s novels — Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and Beyond Black — as well as her extraordinary memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and enjoyed them all. Previously, I would have described her as an under-rated and under-appreciated writer, but winning the Booker prize for Wolf Hall, which I am yet to read, has put paid to all that.

A novel based on personal experience

Even though An Experiment in Love was her seventh novel, it feels semi-autobiographical. The main character and first person narrator, Carmel McBain, comes from a poor Catholic family in northern England — just like Mantel — and she attends university in London to study law — just like Mantel. I wouldn’t like to draw further comparisons, because I am sure authors hate been accused of pilfering their own lives for creative content, but even the year in which the novel is set — 1970 — is the same year in which Mantel went to university for the first time.

While largely set in Tonbridge Hall, a hall of residence for female students, the novel is not so much a university (or college) novel, but one about a young woman, breaking free of her childhood roots to find her place in the real world. Carmel describes it as “a story about appetite: appetite in its many aspects and dimensions, its perversions and falling off, its strange reversals and refusals”. That’s probably a good summary, because in its broadest sense An Experiment in Love revolves around appetites for sex, education, food, freedom and equality.

It is also one of those stories that begins full of optimism and hope, but as the narrative progresses, becomes tinged by melancholia and tragedy. It is not a cheery read, but its depiction of young womanhood at a time when society was changing rapidly — it was the era of the contraceptive pill and feminism — feels particularly authentic and poignant.

Tied to her past by an ever-present childhood friend

The narrative is one that flips backwards and forwards in time as Carmel recalls incidences from her childhood — all of which relate to Karina, who grew up on the same street and is now living in Tonbridge Hall. The relationship between the two women is complicated, because they are very much alike — studious, intelligent, independent — but also polar opposites in other respects — Karina is a “big girl”, while Carmel is so thin she becomes anorexic; Karina does not have a boyfriend, while Carmel is sexually experienced; Karina is prone to making hurtful remarks, while Carmel passively accepts them.

They effectively hate one another but cannot escape their shared — and “shackled” — history.

And yet the proximity of Karina, the sight of her stumping out into the London traffic and dirt, the presence of her name in our mouths—all these things led me helpless back into the past, memories pulling at me strong and smooth as a steel chain, each link hard and bright and obdurate, so that I was hauled out of my frail, pallid, eighteen-year-old body, and forced to live, as I live today as I write, within my ten-year-old self, rosy-skinned but rigid with fear, on my way by bus to take my entrance exam for the Holy Redeemer.

A fast-paced narrative

While not much happens in the book, it is a fabulously gripping read. There’s a real sense of excitement following Carmel and her student friends as they take their first tentative steps into the world of adulthood.

It is the immediacey of the writing which makes it a page turner, almost as if Carmel has taken you into her confidence and is letting you in on family secrets. And while Carmel is far from perfect — she can be petty, jealous, filled with self-loathing and occasionally xenophobic — she has a rather dry wit, which provides some unexpected laughs. Here’s an example:

In London that summer the temperatures shot into the mid-eighties, but at home the weather was as usual: rain most days, misty dawns over our dirty canal and cool damp evenings on the lawns of country pubs where we went with our boyfriends: sex later in the clammy, dewy dark. In June there was an election, and the Tories got in. It wasn’t my fault; I wasn’t old enough to vote.

Clear prose but rich in detail

Mantel’s writing is free from literary flourishes, but she has an uncanny eye for detail — the “angry-looking women” in the cotton town of her childhood wear “shoes like boats”; the factory walls are “plum-coloured brick, stained black from the smoke and daily rain”; and thin girls at university “blow up like party balloons”. And she has her finger on the pulse in terms of social — and femininst — commentary:

Still, our lives were neither free nor pleasant. There was an agenda. We were to be useful to society. We would graduate, then marry, then be mothers, also nurses and teachers, brainy, dowdy, overstretched: selfless breeders with aching calves, speaking well of support stockings by the age of thirty-five, finding our comfort in strong tea with one sugar. We would be women who never sat down, women with rough hands and a social conscience, women with a prayer in their heart and a tight smile on their lips; women who, seeing an extra burden offered, would always step forward and suggest ‘Try me.’ You have heard of schools that train life’s officers: this was a school that trained life’s foolish volunteers.

As a portrait of the claustrophobic life of a women’s hall of residence — where the poor rub shoulders with the rich, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and where a good meal is hard to find — this is an extraordinarily vivid novel. And Carmel’s battle to come to terms with her past in order to move into the future, is also brilliantly realised — and structured.

In 1996 Mantel was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love. You can listen to her discuss the novel on the BBC Radio 4 archive. She has some very interesting things to say about women’s education.

10 books, Book lists

10 books where location is key

10-booksI’m one of those readers who loves her books to be peopled with strong characters. They don’t necessarily have to be believable (some of the best characters are too eccentric or kooky to be real), but they do need to be sharply drawn and three-dimensional. No cardboard cut-outs in my novels, please.

But I also love reading fiction in which the setting is just as important as any character. My location soft spots are New York, Venice, Ireland and Australia, probably because they represent special places in my heart, but it doesn’t really matter where stories are set, just as long as the sense of place is detailed and distinct.

Here’s my top 10 novels where the location is key (arranged in alphabetical order by book title) — hyperlinks take you to my full review:

CrimsonPetalThe Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber

Once described as the book that Charles Dickens was too afraid to write, The Crimson Petal and the White depicts the rise and fall of a 19-year-old prostitute in Victorian-era London. As one would expect from a story about the sordid world of an 1870s “working woman”, it is lewd and bawdy, and the language can, at times, be crude. But the highlight of this 800-page epic is the way in which Faber brings the city to life. The London he describes is rich and vivid, peppered with beggars and street urchins, while the constant stench of human waste and horse dung fills the air. The novel feels like an intoxicating trip into a world that few of us could ever hope – or want – to visit.

EightMonths Eight Months on Ghazza Street by Hilary Mantel

Set in the secret, repressive world of Saudi Arabia, this novel won’t exactly have you planning a trip to Jeddah any time soon, but it’s a fascinating glimpse at a culture so different from our own. Based on Mantel’s first-hand experience of living in the kingdom, it has a real ring of authenticity to it. She depicts a world that is both restrictive and claustrophobic, where the religious police keep a close watch on everything and the rights of women do not exist. British expat Frances Shore, a cartographer forbidden to work because of her gender, finds herself becoming increasingly paranoid as she lives her new life virtually under “house arrest”. Knowing that the apartment above her is empty, she begins to hear unexplained noises – a woman sobbing, footsteps and furniture moving around – and becomes convinced that something illegal is going on. But no one, including her husband, believes her. A psychological thriller of the finest order, this is the kind of story that really gets under the skin.

Forever Forever by Pete Hamill

New York must be one of the most popular cities to depict in fiction, but few have depicted it in the same way as Pete Hamill, the former editor in chief of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. Part swashbuckling adventure, part romance, part historical drama, part fable, Forever spans more than three centuries and tells the story of a poor rural Irish lad who is granted immortality, as long as he never steps foot off the island of Manhattan. And because part of his deal is to ensure he lives a very full and active life, rather than sitting on the sidelines merely existing, he throws himself into all kinds of situations. As time moves on you get to witness changes to the city’s structure, its ethnicity, its politics; you see it grow and change; you discover how it transformed itself from a British outpost for trade and commerce to one of the world’s most glamorous and exciting urban centres. And along the way you meet real characters — good, bad and ugly — from history that shaped the way the city is today.

Offshore Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald

This Booker Prize-winning novel is set among a houseboat community moored on the Thames, just a stone’s throw from Chelsea’s King’s Road, in the early 1960s. Of course, a book set on the Thames could not help but make the river a central character, and Fitzgerald writes of it so evocatively that you can see the water swirling, feel the tides rising and falling, hear the gulls squawking overhead. She gives the river a sense of romance, of history, of danger. And she peoples the story with a cast of eccentric, but wholly believable, characters, as you would expect from those who chose to live in a kind of netherworld, neither belonging to land nor water.

Shiralee The Shiralee by D’Arcy Niland

The highways and byways of rural New South Wales during the Great Depression are the focus of this Australian classic recently republished by Penguin. The central character, Macauley, is a swagman, an Australian term for an itinerant labourer, who travels between jobs largely on foot, carrying a traditional swag (a bed that you roll up) and a tuckerbag (a bag to store food). Accompanied by his four-year-old daughter, whom he initially regards as his “shiralee” (a slang word for burden), Macauley’s quiet, frugal lifestyle is tempered by a little girl who talks too much and slows him down. As well as being a touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship, the book details a bygone way of life and showcases the beauty and terror of the Australian landscape in all her glory – think wide brown paddocks, swaying gum trees, dusty gravel roads, exotic wildlife, brilliant sunshine and unexpected thunderstorms.

SongsOfBlueandGold Songs of Blue and Gold by Deborah Lawrenson

This is one of those lovely, lush stories that transports you right into the heart of the Mediterranean, or, more accurately, the Greek island of Corfu. Based on the life of the late Lawrence Durrell, an expatriate British novelist, poet, dramatist and travel writer, who “wrote beguilingly, drawing constantly on his own experience and his many subsequent moves across the shores of the Mediterranean”, the book is best described as a “literary romance”. But don’t let that put you off. The rich, vivid descriptions of Corfu – the violet trumpets of morning glory growing everywhere, the tangerine sunsets over the water, the scent of jasmine on the night air – will have you planning your next summer holiday before you’ve even got to the last page.

TaintedBlood Tainted Blood by Arnaldur Indriðason

This is the first in an ongoing series of police procedurals, written by a former journalist, set in grey, rainy Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. Erlendur Sveinsson is the morose detective in charge of the investigation into the mysterious death of an old man with a sordid past. The Icelandic location is particularly important, not just for the brooding, melancholy atmosphere it provides, but because the plot hinges on the scientific work being done at the country’s Genetic Research Centre (the Icelandic population is believed to be the most homogeneous society in the world). Tautly written with a fast-paced narrative, this is one of the first novels of the 21st century that heralded a new wave of Scandinavian crime fiction to hit British shores.

ThatTheyMayFace That They May Face the Rising Sun by John McGahern

The Irish countryside has never felt more alive, nor more beautiful, than in this book by the late, great John McGahern. The story mainly revolves around a pair of middle-aged outsiders, Kate and Joe, who flee the London rat race to try a gentler way of living. Over the course of a year we learn about their ups and downs, their hopes and fears, the ways in which they lead their quiet lives on a day-to-day basis and the people they befriend along the way. It is a beautiful, slow-moving story that mirrors the gentle rhythm of rural life and brims with a subdued love of nature. In its depiction of the changing seasons and the farming calendar — the birth of lambs, the cutting of hay — it tells an almost universal story about humankind and its relationship to the land and the climate. And it also tells an important, often overlooked tale, of how humans interact with each other when they live in small communities.

Tenderness The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney

The rugged beauty of the Canadian wilderness in the late 19th century is the setting of this award-winning novel, which is part crime fiction, part epic adventure tale. In a frontier township on the edge of the Arctic Circle, a French settler is found murdered in his shack. His neighbour decides to track down the killer when her teenage son is accused of the crime. What follows is a fast-paced cat-and-mouse hunt across some of the most isolated, and dangerous, terrain on earth. Penney’s descriptions of the landscape, the coldness – and the fear – are pitch-perfect. The Tenderness of Wolves won the Costa Book of the Year in 2006.

Yacoubian The Yacoubian Building by Alaa As Aswany

Set in downtown Cairo at the time of the 1990 Gulf War, this intriguing novel shows modern Egyptian life through the eyes of a diverse cast of characters, all of whom live in an apartment block called the Yacoubian Building. Written by an Egyptian dentist-turned-novelist, the book has been a bestseller throughout the Arabic world since publication in 2002. It charts the struggles of a wide cross-section of society, from the underclass that live in cramped conditions in converted storage rooms on the roof of the building, to the wealthy residents who inhabit the building’s individual apartments. All the while Aswany shines his perceptive eye on the apparent contradictions in Egyptian society where people with different religious, political and moral viewpoints live side by side, not always in harmony.

 So, what did you think of my choices? Are there any particular books you’d recommend that feature evocative locations? What is missing from my list?

Books of the year

My favourite books of 2009

Books-of-the-yearAs we get ready to toast the turn of the decade, it’s time for me to name the best novels I read in 2009. All of them garnered five-stars when I reviewed them over the course of the year.

My top 10 fiction reads are as follows (in alphabetical order by book title):

‘A Far Cry From Kensington’ by Muriel Spark (first published in 1988)
To say I was utterly charmed by it would probably be an understatement. This is a deliciously enjoyable story that is so perfectly constructed it’s almost impossible to find fault with it — on any level. The prose is simple, the characters believable and the plot expertly drawn, so that you’re never quite sure where it’s going to take you and then feel overwhelmingly satisfied when you arrive at its destination.

‘A Woman of My Age’ by Nina Bawden (1967)
A Woman of My Age is definitely a product of its times, when women married young and were expected to stay at home and raise a family. But in Elizabeth Jourdelay, Bawden has created a headstrong and independent character who rails against society’s ‘rules’ and constraints.

‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel (1998)
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.

‘Flowers for Algernon’ by Daniel Keyes (1966)
Daniel Key’s Flowers for Algernon is a very special science fiction novel that reveals much about the human condition and the ways in which we relate to others. It touches on many issues including the way we treat the mentally handicapped, the ethics of scientific experimentation on animals (and humans), our desire to be ‘normal’, the differences between IQ and EQ, and the ways in which our childhood experiences impact on our adult lives.

‘The Merry-Go-Round-in the Sea’ by Randolph Stow (1965)
Essentially the book, which was first written in 1965, is a coming-of-age story. It is set in Geraldton, Western Australia, where the author, who now lives in England, was born. Although my Penguin Modern Classics edition claims it is “not a self portrait” there’s no mistaking The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea‘s semi-autobiographical roots. It has a truly authentic feel for the time and the place, and it’s easy to find yourself entirely immersed in this world, smelling the eucalyptus wafting on the breeze and feeling the hot sand of the beach between your toes.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ by George Orwell (1949)
The thing that struck me most was how much of this futuristic novel was deeply rooted in the time in which Orwell wrote it. There are echoes of war-torn London throughout this book […] Obviously there’s a lot of stuff that feels incredibly prescient today: the so-called War on Terror and its resultant erosion of civil liberties; the increasing reliance on media spin, particularly by government agencies; and the ever-present CCTV surveillance, especially here in the UK.

‘Once & Then’ by Morris Gleitzman (2009)
Once & Then is a powerful story about the strength and resilience of the human spirit. It’s about courage and hope, and surviving against the odds. And while it tackles one of the darkest times in 20th century history, Gleitzman does it sensitively without losing any of the important detail. There’s plenty of death here, and
cruelty, but it’s not sensationalist or gratuitous. ‘This story is my imagination trying to grasp the unimaginable,’ he writes in his afterward. I think he’s achieved it.

‘Pretty Monsters’ by Kelly Link (2009)
There are nine stories here, some of which have been published elsewhere in the past, and each one presents an intoxicating, hugely original world […] I’ve never read such a wacky collection of stories that gripped me, held me in their sway and slightly altered my perception of the universe when I came to each stunning conclusion. Where has Kelly Link been hiding all my life? She’s bloody brilliant.

‘The Shiralee’ by D’Arcy Niland (1955)
The book has a big heart. It’s funny in places and sad in others. It’s occasionally tender, occasionally brutal. It’s humble, knowing and wise. Sometimes it makes you feel ashamed to be human, at other times it makes you feel proud. And, above all, it makes you wish every book was written like this: forthright, absorbing and genuinely moving.

‘The Wilderness’ by Samantha Harvey (2009)
Samantha Harvey is an exquisite writer and a skilled novelist. The Wilderness is so accomplished on so many different levels — stylistically, creatively, intellectually — that it seems astonishing that this is her first novel.”

What books did you most enjoy this year?

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Hilary Mantel, literary fiction, Publisher, Saudi Arabia, Setting

‘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.”

Author, Book review, England, Harper Perennial, Hilary Mantel, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘Giving up the Ghost’ by Hilary Mantel

GivingUpTheGhost

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.