Book Review: Giving Up the Ghost, by Hilary Mantel

Giving Up the Ghost is Hilary Mantel’s relatively short memoir, published in 2003 before she became a prize-winning writer. Her decision to write her memoir, she writes, was to escape the ghosts of the past. In writing you hope for her that it has worked.

Mantel writes, “writing about your past is like blundering through your house with the lights fused, a hand flailing for points of reference…” This may have been the experience of the process, but it is not of the finished work. Mantel presents her memoir with such order and clarity.

Mantel is an astonishing writer. Her writing is breathtaking. Her sharp observations, cleanly drawn, without sentimentality catapult the reader into her world. In many ways it felt a privilege to be a companion through the shadows of her life.

The memoir is mostly of childhood, of recounted narratives, with astonishing clarity. Mantel must have truly absorbed the events of her days, events that show her working class upbringing, under the clutches of a Catholic religion. Mantel is writing these as an adult reflecting back on experience, yet adeptly brings the young self to the page. It is an enviable skill.

Reviewing a memoir has given this reader a different challenge. It is not like reviewing a work of fiction – of plot, character and story. Her memoir is fascinating, and she is generous in it. By the end of it, I understood her ghosts, and why she wanted to exorcise them. Some are named (her ‘stepfather’ Jack, and her unborn daughter Catriona) some merely have form. As someone who has been childless in life, I don’t share her sense of being haunted, and I don’t think it is something that every woman who has tried to conceive has in common. Perhaps we can disagree about that observation.

Was I hoping for an insight into her genius? Perhaps, probably fuelled by my recent reading of Rituals, hoping for crumbs at the table of one of our greatest modern writers. Her gift, perhaps, is in the forensic way she has picked over her own life and experience in order to give up her ghost. There is also a crumb for me – that a story that comes may take its time to be written, in Mantel’s case with one story, 20 years or so. There is certain comfort in that.

Giving Up the Ghost is such an absorbing read, told with such clarity and honesty. It is one I am certain to revisit.

Review: 2016 Reading Challenge

Did I complete the 2016 Reading Challenge?

Strictly speaking, no. I failed in the one category of reading a book previously abandoned. I did think about this a lot, but I don’t really think that it counts. In my defence, there was good reason:

  • The Dante Club and Ernest Shackleton. Both incredibly dense reads; no desire to see if I’d changed my mind about them.
  • The Historian. Too scary, and I don’t like being scared.
  • The Dragon Tatoo. To creepy. Dark. Refer to above. I don’t like being scared.

That said, in many ways it was a huge success. I might never have read War and Peace. Unlikely to have read July’s People. Kes. I would certainly say that it has broadened what I would normally read. That has to be a good thing.

Perhaps the 2017 challenge should be genre specific. Or the Man Booker shortlist (or even long list!).  Keeeep reading!

Book Review: The Many by Wyl Menmuir

Timothy Buchannan buys an abandoned house on the edge of an isolated village on the coast, sight unseen. When he sees the state of it he questions the wisdom of his move, but starts to renovate the house for his wife, Lauren to join him there. When the villagers see smoke rising from the chimney of the neglected house they are disturbed and intrigued by the presence of the incomer, intrigue that begins to verge on obsession. And the longer Timothy stays, the more deeply he becomes entangled in the unsettling experience of life in the small village. Ethan, a fisherman, is particularly perturbed by Timothy’s arrival, but accedes to Timothy’s request to take him out to sea. They set out along the polluted coastline, hauling in weird fish from the contaminated sea, catches that are bought in whole and removed from the village. Timothy starts to ask questions about the previous resident of his house, Perran, questions to which he receives only oblique answers and increasing hostility. As Timothy forges on despite the villagers’ animosity and the code of silence around Perran, he starts to question what has brought him to this place and is forced to confront a painful truth.

The Many really got under my skin. I loved it, and wanted more from it at the same time, but ultimately as it was a book that made me think long after I had put it down, it has to be one of the reads of 2016. I like a book that provokes.

Menmuir has a real gift for portraying setting and atmosphere. His prose allows the reader to be on the beach or cliffs, or sea with the characters. It is mesmerising. The Many is set in a fantasy place in Cornwall – the granite cliffs and the locals anchor it firmly, but at the same time, it is dystopian. A bleak place, with strangely polluted seas marked by a line of do-not-cross tankers. There are fish quotas, alien fish and a mysterious woman in grey. Menmuir’s Cornish village does not match my own experience, although the ’emmet’ (the locals refer to Timothy as this) is a familiar term. This small community closes ranks against the incomer; it is stifling. The whole narrative is male-dominated, leaving me annoyed that there a lack of femininity. Where are the women? There is barely a female voice in the entire book. The women that bear mention are reflected by the main characters.

The Many is thin on dialogue, but then the narrative revolves around two introverted and sullen main characters – Timothy and Ethan. It is of these men that I wanted more from, or more from Menmuir on. Where was their character development? The stories of both men was hopeless. I think this is the genius of the book at the same time; the thing that you are left with. Wondering whether it needed to be quite so desolate… sad even.

Menmuir ultimately has given the reader a great story in The Many, and the mystery of Perran that beguiles Timothy. It is hard to explore more without giving a spoiler. Perhaps one of the greatest mysteries to this reader is the title. The Many. A wonderful title, but baffling in the extreme, because it does not connect me to the story. The Many what?

I would highly recommend this book, despite wanting more from it.

The Many was part of my 2016 Reading Challenge, as a book recommended by my local bookstore.

Book Review: Through a Glass Darkly, by Jostein Gaarder

Through a Glass Darkly is the young girl Cecelia’s end of life story. It is almost Christmas and Cecelia lies sick in bed, as her family strive to make Christmas as special as possible. She is angry and resentful. One evening, an angel steps through her window, and introduces itself – and so begins a series of conversations between them both. As she thinks about her life and death, she changes subtly, in herself and in her relationship with her family.

Jostein Gaarder has a real gift for writing from a child’s point of view. The sense of innocence, curiosity and wonder is revealed in these tender conversations that take place. The phrases or ideas that Cecelia savours are noted down in the notebook that is kept under her bed. When she is too ill to write, her grandmother acts as scribe. It would be a treasure to have those simple wisdoms. My own favourite is:

We see everything through a glass darkly. Sometimes we peer through the glass and catch a glimpse of what it is on the other side if we were to polish the glass clean we’d see much more. But then we would no longer see ourselves.

Through A Glass Darkly is based on Christian faith, but there are lessons for humanity. There is a cost to a loss of innocence, and this is part of the magic of Gaarder’s tale, as you suspend the judgements of an adult mind.

I have simply lost count of the number of times that I read this book. The ending of 2016 was quite tricky emotionally, and this is one of my ‘go to’ books for a little dose of inspiration. It is the spoonful of sugar. It concerns death and dying, but it is an uplifting story. I expect that it won’t be the last time I read it.

Book Review: Elephant Moon by John Sweeney

As the Second World War rages, the Japanese Imperial Army enters Burma and the British rulers prepare to flee. Among those is a orphan school of sixty-two Anglo-Burmese children, born to local women after affairs with foreign men. Half-castes, they are not acknowledged by either side and they are to be abandoned with no one to protect them. Their teacher, Grace Collins, a young Englishwoman, refuses to join the European evacuation and instead sets out to deliver the orphans to the safety of India. She faces impossible odds because between her and India lie one thousand miles of jungle, mountains, rivers and the constant, unseen threat of the Japanese. With Japanese soldiers chasing them down, the group’s chances of survival shrink – until they come across a herd of fifty-three elephants who, with their awesome strength and kindness, quickly become the orphans only hope of survival. Elephant Moon is based on a true story,

I wasn’t sure where the story was going with the opening scene, which rather depicted the worst of British Ex-patriot behaviour. The truth is, I’m still not sure why the story began here. It began several pages later, with the children and the Head Teacher. Elephant Moon is peppered with flaws like this, but John Sweeney can tell a story (he is a journalist after all), and that is what carried me through his imagined account of the true story. His characterisation was lacking, with an unbelievably angelic heroine, Grace Collins, and a dastardly villain, Gregory, the solder and ex-con.

Sweeney captures setting effectively – with almost cinematic quality – adding to the sense of danger from the environment itself. The plight of the party of children seems impossible (but rather like Matt Haig’s A Boy Called Christmas), it is possible, in a way that is not yet revealed. Here comes the highlight in the encounter with the elephant platoon, with beautiful observations of elephant behaviour, particularly the relationship between Mother and Oomy.

Elephant Moon was a page turner for me; remarkable given the flaws, and the almost ‘princess’ quality of Grace to fall in love at a moment’s notice. The last in her affections in the story seemed most implausible to the gritty, determined woman that took on the task of fleeing Rangoon with her charges. Yes, it could have been a better book, but it was still a gripping and moving read. I would recommend it, despite its flaws.

Book Review: A Boy Called Christmas by Matt Haig

A Boy Called Christmas tells the story of Nikolas, the boy that will become Father Christmas. It is the imagined account of why he is who he is. It is superbly illustrated by Chris Mould, no doubt enhancing the reading experience for the very small. That said, A Boy Called Christmas is a perfect Christmas story fit for children big and small.

I absolutely loved this book. Nikolas follows his father, who has gone to find the elf kingdom, and this journey transforms him – makes him the figure we all know and love. Like any story of merit, there are obstacles to overcome and people to win over. It is a feel-good story, with dark edges. The best of kinds of story.

Apart from a heart-warming story, there are notions/concepts in it that deeply appeal to me. Nikolas is encouraged by his mouse friend, Miika, who simply believes in cheese, even though it is nowhere around him. In believing, it is enough to ultimately conjure it. Of course, this becomes the premise of Father Christmas himself. I roared with laughter at the thought that IMPOSSIBLE was an old Elf swear word – it is merely something that is possible that you don’t yet understand. In this, there is potential in everything. I loved also that in the world of the elves, every elf has a calling, and when that is realised, the age becomes fixed. The young Nikolas is frustrated that he seems to be taking such a long time to find his calling (the elves seem permanently youthful), but clearly there are more things for Father Christmas to assimilate.

For anyone wanting a tonic, a literary pick-me-up, this is the perfect story, at any time of the year. It is a book of and for life, and not just for Christmas.