Reading this memoir I found many echoes of her superb novel, Beyond Black, a huge, compelling, agonising book that I read and reviewed here last year. There she transforms the pain of her own life into something specific yet universal, the ruefully amusing purchase of an “executive” home in the memoir becoming an excoriation of commuter-belt life. Similarly, her own weight gain due to chronic illness becomes something grimmer and darker in Beyond Black, while the “ghost” of the memoir materialises into a horrific familiar that dogs the footsteps of the protagonist. If Mantel’s own life left her mentally and physically scarred, I suspect she did much to write it out in Beyond Black, transmuting anger and grief into something equally durable, a book which tells of the hollowness at the centre of modern life and of the means by which we uncaringly damage those around us, or ignore the damage done by others.
It was hard to limit myself to a single passage to share with you, but I’d been thinking about feminism recently, so this stood out (Hilary, newly married, had just transferred from London to Sheffield University part way through her law degree, in 1971):
Some people have forgotten, or never known, why we needed the feminist movement so badly. This was why: so that some talentless prat in a nylon shirt couldn’t patronise you, while around you the spotty boys smirked and giggled, trying to worm into his favour. The birth control revolution of the late sixties had passed our elders by – educators and employers both. It was assumed that marriage was the beginning of a woman’s affective life, and the end of her mental life. It wsa assumed that she neither could nor would exercise choice over whether to breed; poor silly creature, no sooner would her degree certificate be in her hand before she’d cast all that book-learning to the winds, and start swelling and simpering and knitting bootees. When you went for a job interview, you would be asked, if you were not wearing a wedding ring, whether you were engaged; if you were engaged or married, you would be asked when you intended to ‘start your family’. Whether you were celibate, or gay, or just a sensible pre-planner, you had to smile and jump through the flaming hoops held up for you by some grizzled ringmaster, shifty and semi-embarrassed as he asked a girl half his age to tell him about her sex life and account for her next ovulation.Giving Up the Ghost is a brave, darkly funny and beautifully written memoir. Highly recommended.