I often think it’s harder to write about a book you’ve really loved than one you haven’t liked at all. Just as it takes more muscles to smile than to frown (and it really does, the other way round is a myth propagated by a conspiracy of determined optimists), it takes more firing synapses to praise than condemn. I’m tempted to say of Hilary Mantel’s memoir: It’s brilliant, go and read it, and just leave this review concise. But maybe it’s useful if I say a word or two – and give you a quote or two – in justification.
Hilary Mantel grew up just outside of Manchester, the majority of her immediate family living in two neighbouring houses, her grandmother presiding over one, her grandmother’s sister in the other. In and out of their houses all the time, she’s greeted by her great-aunt, Annie Connor:
“Hello, our ‘Ilary,”… my family have named me aspirationally, but aspiration doesn’t stretch to the ‘H’. Rather embarrassed for her, that she hasn’t spotted who I am, I slip her my name of the day. I claim I’m an Indian brave. I claim I’m Sir Launcelot. I claim I’m the parish priest and she doesn’t quibble. I give her a blessing; she says, thank you, Father.’
Yes, like many a writer, Hilary is a wildly imaginative child, believing her best friend’s father to be half-man, half-plant because of the thick, knotty veins in his forearms, able to recite whole chunks of the Knights of the Round Table from memory and convinced she will at some point transmute into a boy.
Trouble comes early: a severe and unexplained fever on her first holiday in Blackpool, when she first realises in that unarticulated childish way, that her parents aren’t happy and fears she is the cause. Forever after it seems as if she were the kind of child who simply absorbed negative energy and turned it into illness. And then there were the dull rigors of school:
I kept my bounce for a week or two, my cheerful pre-school resilience; I was a small, pale girl, post-Blackpool, but I had a head stuffed full of chivalric epigrams, and the self-confidence that comes from a thorough knowledge of horsemanship and swordplay. I knew, also, so many people who were old, so many people who were dead; I belonged to their company and lineage, not to this, and I began to want to rejoin them, without the interruptions now imposed. I couldn’t read, but neither could any of the other children, and it was a wearisome uphill trail in the company of Dick and Dora… It was dull stuff, all of it, and as my head was already full of words, whole sagas which I knew by heart, I was not convinced that it was necessary.’
The story of Hilary’s life is one packed full of ghosts, spotted or sensed here and there, flitting in and out of the margins of the narrative without much in the way of time or explanation spent on them. They just happen to crop up occasionally, and hardly ever cause her any harm, apart from one time when she was seven when something happened while she was in the garden, an experience with no defined contours that ‘wrapped a strangling hand around my life’, a sense of such evil and foreboding that: ‘Grace runs away from me, runs out of my body like liquid from a corpse.’ She refers to it as her ‘mauvaise quart d’heure’, and doesn’t refer to it much at all.
In any case, there is plenty of material trouble to be had with the living. Her parents, along with Hilary and her two young brothers, move into their own house up the road, and then before long so too does Jack, the man who will eventually become her stepfather. ‘You should not judge your parents,’ Mantel writes, on the grounds that they are young and unhappy and don’t know what they’re doing, except hoping for the best. But naturally, such a development caused extreme rifts within her family, and outside of it. When her parents finally split (and Hilary never saw her father again after that), Jack her stepfather evidently feels somewhat saddled with kids he didn’t ask for, a daughter the least useful of all.
But there is a terrific tensile strength in Hilary Mantel, a resolution not to be broken or bowed by the stupid, the pointless and the unwittingly cruel in life, and a determination to stand up to any bully who comes her way. These qualities are tested to the limit when, as a young woman, she transfers her degree course to Sheffield to be with the man she will eventually marry, and starts to experience nausea, sickness and atrocious pains in her legs. She goes to the doctor who, because he doesn’t have any explanation for it, sends her to a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist diagnoses excess ambition (‘If I were honest with myself, he asked, wouldn’t I rather have a job in my mother’s dress shop than study law?’). He puts her on anti-depressants, whose only effect is one of ‘making print slide sideways and fall out of the book.’ Until she tries valium, which makes her fit to be tied – apparently it has the effect of enraging some people. From this point on, Hilary is given stronger and stronger drugs to counter the side-effects of whatever she has previously taken, until she ends up knocked out in a clinic on Largatil. Realising the drugs are now the problem (which no one else does), she stops taking them all and simply claims she is well. Which of course she isn’t at all. It’s not until many years later that she starts researching her illness herself and comes to believe she is suffering from endometriosis, ‘a gynaecological condition with a dazzling variety of systemic effects.’ After some torturous surgery and hormone drugs that make her pile on weight and lose her hair and her hearing, she is out of danger but also a stranger to herself. But that indomitable courage never really goes away: ‘Bald, odd-shaped, deaf but not defeated, I sat down and wrote another book.’
Although the memoir is framed by the act of selling two homes and buying one, the real heart of the book is in these central sections, in which damage is done to Hilary Mantel, inadvertently for the most part, but enough to make her a woman of many lives, in other words, a writer.
I am not writing to solicit any special sympathy. People survive much worse and never put pen to paper… There are other people who, like me, have had the roots of their personality torn up. You need to find yourself, in the maze of social expectation, the thickets of memory: just which bits of you are left intact? I have been so mauled by medical procedures, so sabotaged and made over, so thin and so fat, that sometimes I feel that each morning it is necessary to write myself into being’.
Giving Up the Ghost is a book that takes you by the throat and does not let go, written with consummate stylishness and a clever, teasing wit. I don’t think I’ve read a better account of what it’s like to be a child, the terrible disappointments that come with grasping the essence of growing up as it is sold to the small and helpless. The parts about chronic illness are hypnotic. The ending, a sort of coda in which Hilary Mantel sells her old homes and buys a new one, wasn’t as intriguing or endearing, but who cares? The rest is amazing. A final thought: in the book, she writes that she’d never seen the point of memoir, but writing her own had taught her something new: how to let the story arise, how life eventually revealed its own shape, if you let it, and she hoped this would help with her fiction. And what did she go on to write next? Yup, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. I guess it was useful after all.