Posts Tagged ‘Hilary Mantel’

There’s been another bit of a hiatus here, I am suddenly really struggling to get anything done on the blog at all. However, I did want to try and tell you about a recent book group read. 

My now totally virtual book group (international members joined during COVID) chose to read Hilary Mantel’s early novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street in April. It was an interesting read – and I also found the reactions of the group interesting when we met to discuss it. Full disclosure – it was my suggestion, I had had the book for ages, languishing on the tbr. Following the death of Hilary Mantel it was suggested by someone in the group that we read something from her back catalogue. So, this was already a book I wanted to read, so I approached it already thinking it was a book I would enjoy. I did, for many reasons.

This is a novel about life in Saudi Arabia – life primarily for an expat – though we are given glimpses of what life might be like for Saudi’s too. The novel centres around Frances Shore, a young woman of around thirty. She and her husband Andrew have been living and working in Africa since they met but now Andrew’s work is bringing them to Saudi Arabia. Frances is an intelligent, capable woman with her own career – a cartographer – however in Saudi Arabia all that will be pushed to one side – she won’t even be able to drive.  

The couple settle down to life in an apartment on the titular Ghazzah Street – a building with numerous gates and locks which must be locked and unlocked on entry and exit for the safety and security of all. Not allowed to work, this flat is pretty much the whole of Frances’s world – she is able to go out shopping occasionally, usually in the company of another expat wife – or visit an expat at their home nearby, but the block of flats becomes Frances’ world. 

Frances soon meets two neighbours from her apartment building. Yasmin and her husband, their young baby and a servant occupy one flat, they are originally from Pakistan. Upstairs, lives Samira and her husband, young child and servant – they are Saudi. The fourth flat is empty. As Frances gets to know her neighbours, particularly Yasmin who she sees more of initially, she also comes to wonder about that fourth flat – as she hears whispers and footsteps coming from there – and a shrouded figure disappearing upstairs. She becomes fixated on a secret that she is sure is connected to that flat. Rumours among the expat community about someone using it as a meeting place for an affair – don’t entirely satisfy her.  As her world narrows, Frances spending time learning about Islam from the Quran, writing her diary, cooking, and speaking to her neighbours, Frances’s sense of unease only grows. 

“Life is not like detective stories. There is a wider scope for interpretation. The answers to all the questions that beset you are not in facts, which are the greatest illusion of all, but in your own heart, in your own habits, in your limitations, in your fear.”

Frances and Andrew spend time with other expats connected to the company Andrew works for, they are a pretty horrible bunch. None of them really want to be where they are – but have become trapped by the lure of good money, which for those with children back at home in boarding school becomes harder to turn down. 

“They always say, we’ll just do another year. It’s called the golden handcuffs.”

Determined to leave the apartment under her own steam (the Shores don’t have their own driver) she quickly finds the streets are not a pleasant place for an unaccompanied woman. Just walking a short distance to the home of one of the other wives, Frances encounters aggressive leers and cat calls from cars that pass her. Rumours circulate throughout the expat community of the terrible things that have befallen other Western women who have gone out inappropriately dressed or been found in the company of a man they weren’t married to.

Mantel’s portrait of expat life in Saudi Arabia in the mid 1980s is not a positive one – and the characters are all unlikeable, however I still found a lot to like in this novel. What Mantel does well is to replicate Frances’ sense of unease, I don’t think the reader ever quite relaxes – the society is not one many of us in the west would want to live in. That glimpse of Saudi life I found fascinating, and the expats don’t come out well either – most of them are racist – hard drinking and thoroughly unpleasant.  

All this is perhaps why several members of my book group weren’t very keen on the book.  At least one other member felt as I did, fascinated by the novel, appreciative of the good writing but disliked the characters (I think we were supposed to). Some members felt uncomfortable by the negative view of the country – whereas I felt it was probably realistic, Mantel had spent some time living there herself. Also, with characters so unlikeable, expressing vile views, some readers in the group just became disengaged by them – which I can understand, but I don’t usually have a problem with unlikeable characters. 

All in all, I enjoyed this novel, and it provided an interesting one for our group to discuss. I can see why it is a novel which might divide opinion. 

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For some I am sure it is simply the lure of a new Mantel, rather than the rather odd storm that seems to have blown up over the title story of this collection – but I know I’m not the only one who snapped up this book with rather indecent haste. The controversy – if that is what it was – over the final story in this collection has left me rather bemused. Had Maggie still be alive I might have understood it better. It seems as if most of the criticism came from just one person – which encouraged others to wade in, and it was lovely that Hilary Mantel garnered so much support.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is a really superb collection, beautifully written, the prose crisp, elegant and just what I have come to expect from Mantel. Mantel challenges the reader too however, in stories that slowly reveal hidden darkness.

It is of course as I have said before quite hard to review a short story collection, and recently I reviewed some other short stories in small groups – prompting me to wonder to myself whether that wasn’t a better way to do it in the future – a few at a time rather than all at once. However this collection has been so talked about the last couple of weeks, I decided to keep these ten stories together in my review. I am not going to talk about each story in detail – as so many themes are shared, and each story is brilliant in its own way. This small collection, is quite breathtakingly good, Mantel’s astute observations are sometimes dark, her images both powerful and memorable.

All of these stories have a contemporary setting, and there is also, the feeling that in some of them, there is just a touch of the autobiographical. The opening story in the collection ‘Sorry to Disturb’ takes place in Jeddah, where an ex-pat woman has become gradually more imprisoned by her existence in the flat where she spends so much time alone. One day she receives an unexpected, unknown caller, a rather hopeless seeming Pakistani business man Ijaz, who asks to use the phone, does so then rushes off again. Ijaz returns, time and again, and the unlikely friendship that results soon becomes a burden.

“Buried in the grass we talked: myself monosyllabic, guarded, eight years old, wearing too-small shorts of black-and-white check, that had fitted me last year. Mary with her scrawny arms, her knee-caps like saucers of bone, her bruised legs, her snigger and her cackle and her snort. Some unknown hand had, her own perhaps, had placed on her rat-tails a twisted white ribbon, by afternoon it had skewed itself around to the side, so that her head looked like a badly-tied parcel.”
(From Comma)

In many of these stories Mantel explores women or girls who appear snared in traps of other kinds. In the brilliant Comma, set during a long energy sapping heatwave, the children who haunt the grounds of a local big house hoping to catch a glimpse of what they have heard is inside, are brilliantly and authentically re-created. Their inquisitiveness, tinged with dumb cruelty, born out of boredom and lack of supervision. The fifth story ‘Harley Street’; the strange and strained relationships between the women who work behind the polished facades are revealed to be surprisingly taut. In ‘How Shall I Know You?’ Mantel brilliantly satirises the world of literary book groups, as a weary writer of biographies, travels from one to another, meeting her host at the station before being deposited at yet another B&B or out of the way guest house. The story takes a slightly different turn as we meet Louise, a tough, bullied put upon B&B employee at a truly nasty B&B. A teenage girl spirals into the trap of anorexia in the quietly powerful ’The Heart Fails without warning.’ ‘Terminus’, one of my personal favourites, a very short story is thought provoking and sad, as a woman glimpses her dead father in the carriage of another train as it pulls out of Clapham Junction.

“Picture first the street where she breathed her last. It is a quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their facades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the colour of honey. Some are Georgian, flat-fronted. Others are Victorian, with gleaming bays. They are too big for modern households, and most of them have been cut up into flats. But this does not destroy their elegance of proportion, nor detract from the deep lustre of panelled front doors, brass-furnished and painted in navy or forest green”
(From The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher)

All of which brings me to the title story. An I.R.A assassin gains access to the apartment of a woman (who turns out to be fairly sympathetic to his cause) which overlooks the gardens of the private eye hospital where the Prime Minister underwent surgery in 1983. I will say no more. This is a brilliant piece of writing, and I’m glad I left it till last rather than gobble it up first as I was sorely tempted to do when the book arrived. In this story, Mantel offers us a tantalising possibility – the idea of ‘the door in the wall’ through which of course history could be changed entirely.

“Who has not seen the door in the wall? It is the invalid child’s consolation, the prisoner’s last hope. It is the easy exit for the dying man, who perishes not in the death-grip of a rattling gasp, but passes on a sigh, like a falling feather. It is a special door and obeys no laws that govern wood or iron.”
(From The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher)

So in this already famous story, Mantel doesn’t just give us an alternative history – I think The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher far cleverer than that. It was also a wonderfully compelling, a treat I had looked forward to all day. So after a hard, exhausting day I read it with a welcome cup of tea when I got home about five o’clock, it is a superb conclusion to a brilliant collection. This collection has reminded me that although I have read Mantel’s utterly brilliant Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, as well as A Place of Greater Safety (years ago) I have never read any of her contemporary set novels – I must remedy that soon.


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It is not often that I leap to my computer to pre-order a new release in hardback. However I was so excited at the prospect of reading the next instalment of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy I just had to. It arrived last Monday – and I started it Tuesday night. I wished I hadn’t had to go to work this week – and I was out after work on both Wednesday and Thursday, so it is testament to the enormous readability of this novel that I have finished it today.

In Wolf Hall – Mantel’s marvellous Booker winning first instalment – we see the raise of Thomas Cromwell. A blacksmith’s son, who having escaped his humble beginnings, serves time abroad learning his craft until eventually he arrives back in London and goes to work for the great Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is doomed however and it is Cromwell who ends up with the ear of king. The story in Wolf Hall takes place over a number of years and concerns mainly the divorce of Henry VIII from Katherine of Aragon, and the fall of Thomas More. The time period of Bring up the Bodies – is much shorter – the story opens in September 1535 – when the cracks in Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn are beginning to show – and takes us up to the summer of 1536. The autumn of 1535 there are crops failing all over England due to incessant rain, for which some blame Anne Boleyn. Katherine of Aragon is ill – dying and separated from her daughter Mary.

For any fan of Tudor set novels like myself – the story of the fall of Anne Boleyn is one we never tire of – though we know it ever so well. When it comes to stories about Henry VIII and those surrounding him, I feel like a child hearing a loved bedtime story – crying out “again, again” We know what happens to Anne, we know who whispers what to whom, and how it ends, but none of that ever stops it being utterly enthralling. When they finally come for Anne – her uncle among them – and take her away to the tower – how can we not be thrilled at the horror of a queen taken away in shame? She must have known what her fate could be even then, although she is often – as here – portrayed as believing that Henry would intervene for her eventually.

It is however Hilary Mantel’s marvellous writing that separates this from all the rest. From the strange and beguiling opening sentences:

“His children are falling from the sky. He watches from horseback, acres of England stretching behind him; they drop, gilt-winged, each with a blood-filled gaze.” –

Cromwell has named his hawks after his dead daughters –from here on in, I was hooked.

Mantel’s depiction of the times is brilliant, the sights and sounds of Tudor England subtly and beautifully woven into an extraordinary tale. The politics and conniving machinations that surround Anne are brilliant reproduced. Cromwell has a ready supply of gossip mongers and court informers that conspire to bring Anne down. Lady Rochford (one of my favourite Tudor characters) is marvellously sinister. Thomas Cromwell’s household in comparison to that of Henry’s court is a happy, settled and genial place. Despite the tragedies of his wife and daughter’s deaths that we witnessed in Wolf Hall – Cromwell retains a good family life – with his son, nephew and Rafe his clerk, who was brought up by Cromwell, as well as various well treated, good humoured and trusted servants. 

Bring up the Bodies – is at least a couple of hundred pages shorter than the epic Wolf Hall – but it is utterly compelling and beautifully written, and I enjoyed it enormously. Already I am looking forward to the next instalment.

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Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2009 ‘Lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning,’ says Thomas More, ‘and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.’ England, the 1520s. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is his chief advisor, charged with securing the divorce the pope refuses to grant. Into this atmosphere of distrust and need comes Thomas Cromwell, first as Wolsey’s clerk, and later his successor. Cromwell is a wholly original man: the son of a brutal blacksmith, a political genius, a briber, a charmer, a bully, a man with a delicate and deadly expertise in manipulating people and events. Ruthless in pursuit of his own interests, he is as ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages. From one of our finest living writers, Wolf Hall is that very rare thing: a truly great English novel, one that explores the intersection of individual psychology and wider politics. With a vast array of characters, and richly overflowing with incident, it peels back history to show us Tudor England as a half-made society, moulding itself with great passion and suffering and courage.

I do love Tudor history and so this novel was really right up my street. I already feel I know quite a lot about Henry VIII and his exrtraordinary life – but this novel allows us to view Henry from a distance as it is the more shadowy figure of Thomas Cromwell that is at the centre of the novel. Even before I began to read I was fascinated by this elusive figure, both feared and repected in his time.

Wolf Hall is a 650 page tome, which I have found to be a fairly quick read – bearing in mind I have had more reading time this week than usual. Wolf Hall is a must for all lovers of the Tudor period – all the sights and smells of this exciting and brutal period are brought to life. Thomas Cromwell – a background figure in so many other historical novels is the central character he and his family are brilliantly portrayed,  his  rise from humble beginnings, the tragedies at the heart of his family, and the relationships he has with the people around him have been faithfully researched and brought to life. Maybe because Thomas Cromwell is much more of a shadowy character historically – Mantel is able to bring him alive for us in a way which must be more difficult with well known historical figures like Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn – as we already think we know them. Some criticism I have seen online – which I have to agree with is that sometimes the dialogue is a tad confusing with too many “he saids” in a long complex conversation. There are also a few sections that are a little over long and therefore begin to drag, but overall things move along swiftly and even the complex Tudor politics are made fascinating. I found this a hard to put down book and even found myself sympathising with Thomas Cromwell, as Mantel manages to portray him as very human, he is a hard man, – a product of his background and the times in which he lived. He is a complicated man, and an enormously interesting one.   A very enjoyable well written read, and I look forward to the sequal that I believe is being planned.

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