Saturday, October 27, 2012
More Curiosities from the Backlist - Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, Hilary Mantel
Hilary Mantel, author of Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies is one of those authors who's been my "must get to" list for ages, and after reading this fascinating profile of her in a recent issue of The New Yorker, I knew I must get right on it. But despite all the rave reviews, I wasn't drawn to her more renowned titles (or the subject of Thomas Cromwell), and while browsing her books at the library, found myself leaving instead with an earlier novel, the tense, suspenseful Eight Months on Ghazzah Street (Henry Holt, 1988).
In it, Frances Shore follows her husband on assignment to Saudi Arabia. The woman and the place could not be more ill-suited for one another: Frances is an independent-minded, professional woman, and her experience of Saudi Arabian Muslim culture is one of utter confinement. As a trailing spouse, she has left her own livelihood behind; as a woman in the Saudi kingdom, everything from her clothing to the ability to move about freely are regulated; as a foreigner, her actions are subject to constant scrutiny and disapproval. Moreover, she and her fellow expats are at the mercy of the government's every whim. Add the secretive nature of government authority to this mix, and suddenly truth and lies become maddeningly indistinguishable. Frances bristles and chafes under this restrictive environment, at first slipping into withdrawal and depression. But she cannot fight her curiosity about the mysterious goings-on in the upstairs apartment, and as she begins to ask questions, she becomes entangled in a mystery whose dangers she cannot fully comprehend.
I loved how Mantel steadily built a suspenseful plot from the friction between British and Saudi culture, and between gender and culture, as well as the way she portrayed the nuances of Frances' increasing frustration and its accompanying up-and-down emotions. She struck me as a realistic character with a realistic experience, though one that's gone horribly awry. Her character really resonated - I have been a trailing spouse (many times over), and an expatriate (albeit in a very different place than Saudi Arabia). While I've been lucky to have very positive experiences in all the places I've lived, there was much Mantel describes that is universal about the experience of acculturation to any new place, and especially a foreign one. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a dark story, and Frances not at all a sunny personality, so if you are looking for a bright, uplifting read, this won't be it for you. It's a captivating read for the right mood - The New Yorker's description of it as "gothic" is quite on target, and I was definitely reminded of Daphne DuMaurier - which put it right up my alley.
Are you a Hilary Mantel fan, or are you planning to read her work? Weigh in! And happy reading!