Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Living with Ghosts of What Might Have Been

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Living with Ghosts of What Might Have Been

Article excerpt


GIVING UP THE GHOST: A Memoir by Hilary Mantel (Fourth Estate, [pounds sterling]16.99) JUSTINE PICARDIE

FROM its opening pages to its final words, Hilary Mantel's memoir, Giving Up the Ghost, is peopled by spirits, not all of them dead.

Her husband, a geologist to whom she has been married twice, remains a shadowy presence throughout the book, a silent companion in housemoving; as does her father, Henry, who makes way for a new man in her mother's life, never to reappear, yet forever trapped in his daughter's memory. Then there are Mantel's "ghost children", taken from her along with her reproductive organs, as a result of the medical mismanagement of her endometriosis.

Having been told for years that she was "imagining things" and fed antidepressants that caused her to feel as crazy as the doctors' diagnosis, Mantel was finally treated too late to conceive; too late to fully recover.

But unlike her, a thin girl made fat by more bad drugs, her unborn babies: "Don't age, so they don't know it's time to leave home. They won't, without a struggle, be kicked out of your psyche."

One senses that for all the unwelcome solidity of her middle-aged body, Mantel has felt herself to be as insubstantial as the spirits around her; that this book is an attempt to make herself real again, as she puts it: "In the narrow space between one letter and the next, between the lines where the ghosts of meaning are."

As a novelist, Mantel is used to seeing things that aren't there - she has made a living by conjuring up the invisible - but is more perplexed by how to tell the truth of her life.

"I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do," she writes, early in the book, as if by way of apology for what is to follow. "But I also think that, if you're weak, it's childish to pretend to be strong." And so Mantel's memoir takes shape, following the meandering paths of memory, acknowledging that all families construct their own fictions; that the past does not correspond to a simple map. …

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