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.

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