After seeing Hilary Mantel speak recently, I decided to find out a bit more about her by reading her memoir, Giving up the Ghost. Before this, I’d read snippets in the press about her ‘tragic medical history’ and ‘difficult childhood’. I don’t think those clichés do it anything like justice to be honest now I have read this book.
Mantel does not pretend that Giving up the Ghost is an autobiography. She freely admits that she has left painful things out, skipped most of her teenage years and glossed over other events. However, what this book is is an extremely moving series of recollections where you, the reader, are plunged into Hilary’s point of view.This is brave because not only is it unflinching in its presentation of herself, but also means strange things that happen are not explained by Hilary the child at the time as she doesn’t understand them at the time and therefore they do not make sense to the reader until later either. This makes it a challenging read at times, but rewarding. I could see in this book the techniques she used to get into Thomas Cromwell’s skin later with Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. As always, Mantel’s love of words and skills with marshalling them into compelling sentences is present. She never enters the realms of self-pity which is part of this book’s charm, but her challenges brought tears to my eyes more than once.
The other thing that struck me about this book was the well-trodden but true tale of education allowing Mantel opportunities denied to her parents. This always strikes a chord with me as my own circumstances were similar. This is one of those books that will stay with me I think because it gives such a sense of a person and a life whilst still retaining some secrets; the twinkle in her eye I witnessed in person is very much in evidence here and that is wonderful and inspiring given what she has been through.