The first thing I ever read of Hilary Mantel’s was her short story about the fictitious (some would say ‘sadly’) assassination of Margaret Thatcher called, quite obviously, ‘The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher’, which appeared in full in one of the Sunday magazines. I loved it. And I’d never even thought about reading any of her historical fiction before, because history really isn’t my bag; I had a terrible time in O-Level History lessons and to this day remain bemused and confused over why I spent 2 years of my educative life learning things about Hitler and Treaties that I still don’t understand the relevance of. And yes, I know that we all need to know a little of our history, but please why do we (STILL) have to focus on such disastrous times – why can’t we learn about late 20th Century histories like UK Prime Ministers and The Miners Strikes and the Irish Troubles? Let’s be a bit more relevant can’t we?).
So anyway, it was with a little trepidation that I picked up this book in our local hospice shop. But once I’d read the inside jacket cover:
Opening in 1995 with ‘As Second Home’, Mantel describes the death of her stepfather, a death which leaves her deeply troubled by the unresolved events of childhood. ‘Not Geoffrey, Don’t Torment Her’, begins in typical gripping Mantel fashion: ‘Two of my relatives have died by fire.’ Set during the 1950s, it takes the reader into the muffled consciousness of her early childhood, culminating with the birth of a younger brother and the strange candlelit ceremony of her mother’s ‘churching’. Mantel then moves to a haunted house and mysteriously gains a stepfather…… […]The author reveals how, through, medical misunderstandings and neglect, she came to be childless, and how the ghosts of the unborn, like chances missed or pages unturned, have come to haunt her as a writer.
And so, because I seem to be forever searching for some kind of writerly connection with any other writer (this is usually the basis of my daily prevarication and procrastination at the keyboard) I had to read Hilary’s story – especially for the hint of ghosts and the misunderstandings and the general feeling of ‘things not quite right’ about her world – with which I felt I might be able to empathise.
Beautifully (understandably) described and simply stated, the book is an emotional journey told through the eyes of a young and confused Hilary, through the troubled and painful adolescent/young adult years where her undiagnosed Endometriosis left her unable to have children and physically/mentally altered for life, ‘Giving up the Ghost’ is a perfect read. It’s revealing without being over-sentimental and I enjoyed finding out about the past and the pains of one of the finest writers of our day.
It hasn’t encouraged me to read Wolf Hall or Bring up the Bodies, but it has made me realise that we are all (successful authors included; perhaps even especially) damaged in some way or another – and these sometimes unnaturally occurring phenomena shape the peculiar successes we reap in our lives one way or another.
9/10. A lovely, moving insight into a great writer’s life.