Hilary Mantel’s 2003 memoir, Giving Up The Ghost, far preceded her arrival as the “Best Writer in Britain”, but it is an excellent read about adversity, youth, creativity and illness.
The first half of the book is all about her Catholic upbringing in the North West, which is well rendered and nicely put together, but far too rural and about children for me to really enjoy that much. Don’t get me wrong, as a hundred pages about childhood in the British countryside, it’s about as fine as it can get, but it isn’t my kind of thing. The second half, however, I found incredibly engaging, deeply moving and a real joy to read.
Mantel, as some of you may know, was misdiagnosed as having various physical and mental illnesses when in her twenties that turned to be a complex infection in her womb. This was left so unchecked that the only treatment available, once noticed, was the removal of all of her reproductive organs. Mantel builds and folds a reader into her horror at the anti-psycotic drugs she is forced to take, the weight she gains, the behaviour that changes and the childlessness that is forced upon her at the end of her troubles. It is an upsetting story, and one of the ghosts of the book’s title is the ghost of her imaginary daughter. Which she settles. Bravely and strongly.
Giving Up The Ghost made me cry a lot, impressed me with its prose, created laughter several times and kept me intrigued throughout (though possibly only reading through the first half due to the hints of what was to come). This is a great memoir, well-structured, varied in its contents and though, of course, it is through writing that she finds happiness at the end, this doesn’t come across as smaltzy, idealised and a bit of a cop out, it feels natural, and believable.
Mantel’s intelligence, skill and perception shine through here. I think I’ll read some of her older novels.