In postwar rural England, Hilary Mantel grew up convinced that the most improbable of accomplishments, including "chivalry, horsemanship, and swordplay," were within her grasp. Once married, however, she acquired a persistent pain that led to destructive drugs and patronizing psychiatry, ending in an ineffective but irrevocable surgery. There would be no children; in herself she found instead one novel, and then another.
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Hilary Mantel is the bestselling author of many novels including Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Bring Up the Bodies, Book Two of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, was also awarded the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Book Award. She is also the author of A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, An Experiment in Love, The Giant, O'Brien, Fludd, Beyond Black, Every Day Is Mother's Day, and Vacant Possession. She has also written a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Mantel was the winner of the Hawthornden Prize, and her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. She lives in England with her husband.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
GIVING UP THE GHOST It is a Saturday, late July 2000; we are in Reepham, Norfolk, at Owl Cottage. There’s something we have to do today, but we are trying to postpone it. We need to go across the road to see Mr. Ewing; we need to ask for a valuation, and see what they think of our chances of selling. Ewing’s is the local firm, and it was they who sold us the house, seven years ago. As the morning wears on we move around each other silently, avoiding conversation. The decision’s made. There’s no more to discuss. About eleven o’clock, I see a flickering on the staircase. The air is still; then it moves. I raise my head. The air is still again. I know it is my stepfather’s ghost coming down. Or, to put it in a way acceptable to most people, I “know” it is my stepfather’s ghost. I am not perturbed. I am used to “seeing” things that aren’t there. Or—to put it in a way more acceptable to me—I am used to seeing things that “aren’t there.” It was in this house that I last saw my stepfather, Jack, in the early months of 1995: alive, in his garments of human flesh. Many times since then I have acknowledged him on the stairs. It may be, of course, that the flicker against the banister was nothing more than the warning of a migraine attack. It’s at the left-hand side of my body that visions manifest; it’s my left eye that is peeled. I don’t know whether, at such vulnerable times, I see more than is there; or if things are there that normally I don’t see. Over the years the premonitionary symptoms of migraine headaches have become more than the dangerous puzzle that they were earlier in my life, and more than a warning to take the drugs that might ward off a full-blown attack. They have become a psychic adornment or flourish, an art form, a secret talent I have never managed to make money from. Sometimes they take the form of the visual disturbances that are common to many sufferers. Small objects will vanish from my field of vision, and there will be floating lacunae in the world, each shaped rather like a doughnut with a dazzle of light where the hole should be. Sometimes there are flashes of gold against the wall: darting chevrons, like the wings of small quick angels. Scant sleep and lack of food increase the chances of these sightings; starving saints in Lent, hypoglycemic and jittery, saw visions to meet their expectations. Sometimes the aura takes more trying forms. I will go deaf. The words I try to write end up as other words. I will suffer strange dreams, from which I wake with hallucinations of taste. Once, thirty years ago, I dreamed that I was eating bees, and ever since I have lived with their milk-chocolate sweetness and their texture, which is like lightly cooked calves’ liver. It may be that a tune will lodge in my head like a tic and bring the words tripping in with it, so I am forced to live my life by its accompaniment. It’s a familiar complaint, to have a tune you can’t get out of your head. But for most people, the tunes aren’t the preludeto a day of hearty vomiting. Besides, people say they pick them up from the radio, but mine are songs people don’t really sing these days. Bill Bailey, won’t you please come home? Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules. My aged father did me deny. And the name he gave me was the croppy boy. Today, the day I see the ghost, the problem’s just that my words don’t come out right. So I have to be careful, at Mr. Ewing’s, but he understands me without any trouble, and yes, he remembers selling us the cottage, seven years ago, is it really so long? They were years in which perhaps half a million words were drafted and redrafted, seven and a half thousand meals were consumed, ten thousand painkillers (at a conservative estimate) were downed by me, and God knows how many by the people I’d given a pain; years in which I got fatter and fatter (wider still and wider, shall my bounds be set): and during seven years of nights, dreams were dreamed, then erased or reformatted: they were years during which, on the eve of the publication of my seventh novel, my stepfather died. All my memories of him are bound up with houses, dreams of houses, real or dream houses with empty rooms waiting for occupation: with other people’s stories, and other people’s claims: with fright and my adult denial that I was frightened. But affection takes strange forms, after all. I can hardly bear to sell the cottage and leave him behind on the stairs. Late in the afternoon, a migrainous sleep steals up on me. It plants on my forehead a clammy ogre’s kiss. “Don’t worry,” I say, as the ogre sucks me into sleep. “If the phone wakes, it will ring us.” I knew the migraine was coming yesterday, when I stood in a Norfolk fishmonger choosing a meal for the cats. “No,” I said, “cod’s too expensive just now to feed to fish. Even fish like ours.” I hardly know how to write about myself. Any style you pick seems to unpick itself before a paragraph is done. I will just go for it, I think to myself, I’ll hold out my hands and say, c’est moi, get used to it. I’ll trust the reader. This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don’t think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage! But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre. (Don’t use foreign expressions; it’s elitist.) I stray away from the beaten path of plain words into the meadows of extravagant simile: angels, ogres, doughnut-shaped holes. And as for transparency—windowpanes undressed are a sign of poverty, aren’t they? How about some nice net curtains, so I can look out but you can’t see in? How about shutters, or a chaste Roman blind? Besides, windowpane prose is no guarantee of truthfulness. Some deceptive sights are seen through glass, and the best liars tell lies in plain words. So now that I come to write a memoir, I argue with myself over every word. Is my writing clear: or is it deceptively clear?I tell myself, just say how you came to sell a house with a ghost in it. But this story can be told only once, and I need to get it right. Why does the act of writing generate so much anxiety? Margaret Atwood says, “The written word is so much like evidence—like something that can be used against you.” I used to think that autobiography was a form of weakness, and perhaps I still do. But I also think that, if you’re weak, it’s childish to pretend to be strong. Sell Owl: the decision came with us, crawling through the Friday evening traffic on the M25, and navigating the darkness of Breckland settlements with their twisted pines and shuttered houses. We had done this journey so many times, looping past the center of Norwich on the fringes of industrial estates, slowing at the crossroads among West Earlham council houses: lamps burning behind drawn curtains, no one in the streets. As you cross the city boundary the streetlights run out, the road narrows. You creep forward into that darkness which is lit only by the glittering eyes of foxes and farm cats, punctuated by the flurry of wing beats and scurrying of busy feet in the verges. Something unseen is eating. Something is being consumed. As you enter the small town of Reepham you turn by the church wall, bashed and battered by many long vehicles, into the marketplace empty of cars. The King’s Arms is still burning a light, the big doors of the Old Brewery are closed and its residents padding upward to their beds. Turning uphill from the square, you park on the muddy rutted ground at the back of the cottage, unloading in the dark and mostly in the rain; your boots know the puddles and slippery patches, the single dark step and the paving’s edge. Sometimes it is midnight and winter, the cold sucking the virtue from a torch beam, diffusing the lightinto an aimless dazzle. But just as feet know the path, fingers know the keys. Fifty yards from the Market Place, there is no light pollution, no urban backwash to pale the sky; no flight path, no footfall. There is starlight, frost on the path, and owls crying from three parishes. You sleep well in this house, though if you are here on a weekday morning the trucks and tractors wake you at dawn. Their exudates plaster the roadside windows with a greasy, smearing dirt. The country is not clean or quiet. Through the day hydraulic brakes wheeze as truck drivers come to a halt at the bottom of the hill, at Townsend Corner. But when they say town’s end, they mean it. Beyond the police station, beyond the last bungalow—that is to say, in less than a quarter of a mile—the town becomes open fields. The next settlement is Kerdiston. Its church fell down several hundred years ago. It has no street names and indeed, no streets. Even the people who live there aren’t sure where it is. Its single distinguished resident, Sir William de Kerdeston, moved to Reepham after he died, and lies in effigy on his tomb, resting—if that is the word—in full armor and on a bed of pebbles: his shoulder muscles twitching, perhaps, his legs flexing, every year as we reach the Feast of All Souls and the dead prepare to walk. When we bought the cottage it had no name or history. It was a conversion of buildings that might once have been a house, or not; most likely it was some kind of agricultural storeroom. At some point early in the 1990s, a Norwich builder knocked four flats and two cottages out of its undistinguished structure of old red-brown brick. In the winter of 1992-93 we were scouring the county for a weekend place. We went to the coast and deep into the heartland, always keeping in mind the long journey from Berkshireand our need to settle, for weekends, close to my parents, who had retired to Holt. Studded into our Barbour raingear, driving our scarlet BMW, we were a sight to gladden the eyes of any country estate agent. We would see their faces light up, only to assume their habitual gray glaze when we introduced them to our stringent budget and our high requirements. We wanted nothing tumbledown, nothing picturesque, nothing with a small but containable dry rot problem. And nothing too remote, as I might want to stay there alone, and I am myself too remote and nervous and irritable to drive a car. We wanted a shop and a pub, but most Norfolk villages are straggling depopulated hamlets, with a telephone box, if you’re lucky, to mark their center. All the same, we thought there was a home for us somewhere in the county. I’d just won a book prize, so we had unexpected cash to pitch in. Norfolk wasn’t fashionable then. People thought it was too far from London, and it didn’t have what urbanites require, the infrastructure of gourmet dining and darling little delis; it had pubs that served microwaved baked potatoes with huge glum portions of gravy and meat, and small branches of Woolworth in small towns, and Spar groceries in larger villages, and waterbirds, and long reaches of shingle and sea, and a vast expanse of painter’s sky. By this stage we knew Norfolk fairly well. I had first come to the county in 1980, to stay with friends who were themselves newly settled in a Broadlands village. My own home was in Africa, but my marriage was breaking up. A wan child with a suitcase—an old child, at twenty-eight—I went about to visit people, to stay for a while and drift away again, ending up always back at my parental home, which was then still in the north. I seemed to be perpetually on trains, dragging my luggage up flights of steps at Crewe, or trying to find a sheltered place on the windswept platforms of Nuneaton. As I traveled, I grew thinner and thinner, more frayed and shabby, more lonely. I was homesick for the house I had left, for my animals, for the manuscript of the vast novel I had written and left behind. I was homesick for my husband, but my feelings about my past were too impenetrable and misty for me to grasp, and to keep them that way I often began and ended each day with a sprinkling of barbiturates gulped from my palm, washed down with the water from some other household’s cup. When you take barbiturates at night your dreams are blank and black, and your awakening is sick and distant, the day in front of you like a shoreline glimpsed from a pitching ship. But this is because you need some more. After an hour, you feel just fine. My Norfolk host was a woman I had known in Africa. Her husband was working abroad again, and she didn’t like to be alone in the country dark. If our strained expatriate lives had not brought us into contact, we would never have been friends; after a while I realized we weren’t friends anyway, so I got on a train in Norwich and never came back. But our long drives about the county, lost in winter lanes, our limp salads in village cafés, our scramblings in overgrown churchyards, and our attention to the stories of old people had made me think deeply about this territory, and want to write a novel set there. After some years, this was what I did. We had been separated for no more than two years when my ex-husband came to England, changed. I believe people do change; there’s no mileage, really, in believing the opposite. I also had changed. I was living alone. I was sick with a chronic illness, swollen by steroid medication, and a cynic in matters of romance. Of Freud’s two constants, love and work, I now embraced just one; I was employed six days a week at two illpaid jobs, days in a bookshop and nights behind a bar, and I got up at dawn to write my journals and stabilize my body for a venture into the world. I kept notes for future books; at that time, 1982, I had published only one short story. I had given up barbiturates. I don’t remember exactly when I stopped, or what I did with the endless supply of tiny pills from the big plastic tub I’d brought from Africa. Did I tail them off? Stop them cold? I don’t know. In view of the claims I will later make for my memory, this causes me concern. Perhaps they brought their own oblivion with them, each rattling little scoop of pinheadsized killers. Since then I have always been addicted to something or other, usually something there’s no support group for. Semicolons, for instance, I can never give up for more than two hundred words at a time. Whether I was fit, that summer, to make a rational decision—well, who ever knows about that? It seemed that what I had left, with my ex-husband, was more than most people started with. So we got married again, economically, at the registrar’s office in Maidenhead, with two witnesses. It was September, and I felt very ill that morning, queasy and swollen, as if I were pregnant; there was a pain behind my diaphragm, and from time to time something seemed to flip over and claw at me, as if I were a woman in a folktale, pregnant with a demon. Nothing, except for having to get married, would have got me out of bed, into my dress, into my high heels, and into the street. The registrar was kindly, and wished us better luck this time around. There was no ring; as the size of my fingers was changing week to week, I didn’t see the point, and it is possible, also, that I didn’t want to ...
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