Review: Giving Up the Ghost

“You come to this place, mid-life. You don’t know how you got here, but suddenly you’re staring fifty in the face. When you turn and look back down the years, you glimpse the ghosts of other lives you might have led; all houses are haunted.”

Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel
378 pages
Published by Picador Modern Classics, 2003
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Re-readability: One could pick this one back up, though I don’t think I’ll be reading this one again.
Reviewed by Indiana

Hilary Mantel, known for works like Wolf Hall, details her life of pain and creation, though not the typical kind. She grapples death, both realized and imagined and the death of dreams that seem to linger.

The ghost of her father in law follows her around in a cottage she’s trying to sell, while the ghost of her unborn (and never to be born) child keeps popping up, with a stunning resilience. They haunt her throughout the book and remind her of lives she won’t be able to lead, of her unsettled self and the person she thought she might be.

Mantel grew up in post-war England, where things like divorce were scandalous and hushed up and whether you are Protestant or Catholic means everything. Mantel’s mother, though not divorced, took on a different lover when Mantel was a child. Children at Mantel’s Catholic school knew and weren’t entirely kind to her (nor were the nuns).

Yet, Mantel began to believe in things like chivalry and heroics, thinking that she could carry these things into adulthood and create a beautiful life. Once she was married though, she began to experience a debilitating pain, one that doctors couldn’t pinpoint for years.

She was finally able to get a diagnosis – Endometriosis – but that was after plenty of other painful treatments, surgeries, and physical changes (“It used to be fashionable to call endometriosis “the career woman’s disease”: the implication being, there now, you callous bitch, see what you get if you put off breeding and put your own  ambitions first.”) Those parts were tough to read, simply because the treatments sounded archaic. 

Mantel is a superb writer, with witty one liners that cut deep into her own pain and with eerie observations about the world: “When the midwife says, ‘It’s a boy,” where does the girl go? When you think you’re pregnant and you’re not, what happens to that child that has already formed in your mind?” And “But then you are aware that readers – any kind readers who’ve stayed with you – are bracing themselves for some revelation of sexual abuse. That’s the usual horror.”

She also addresses certain feminist-focused issues with grace and a hard-nosed desire to get at the truth rather than the emotions of any situation.

Yet, this book didn’t quite work for me. I always felt out of step with the pacing. I was expecting things to move fast when Mantel dragged them out and when I settled in for a longer section, she ended it abruptly. I wish there had been a bit more time spent on her adulthood and on her life once she first started being haunted by the unborn child. Or about how she began to turn that desire or that itch into writing books, being haunted by a different sort of ghost.  


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