Friday, November 21, 2008

Damn, That Girl Can Write

Anyone who reads my novels knows I love dark humor. The darker, the better. And no one does dark humor better than the British. I discovered Hilary Mantel years ago while browsing through an out-of-the way bookstore. I read Everyday is Mothers Day, followed by the sequel, Vacant Possession. The novels revolve around Muriel Axom, the hulking, psychopathic, idiot savant daughter of a medium trying to eke out a living in a crumbling English middle-class suburb. Muriel is a truly evil character and yet also strangely compelling and childlike. It’s a testament to Mantel’s ability as a writer that she can create a character who evokes such strong conflicting emotions. Slowly, patiently, and diabolically Muriel plots her revenge on people who have been cruel to her, including her own mother. Her transformation in Vacant Possession, set against the staid, bourgeoisie background of the Sidney family, is by turns grotesque, horrific and comic.

Mantel is the recipient of numerous literary awards, including The Orange Prize for Fiction (Beyond Black). She is a fine writer but she’s not for the squeamish. Her novel, The Giant, O’Brien is the story of an Irish giant who exhibits himself on the London curiosity circuit in the 1780’s. Charlie O’Brien is also an Irish storyteller who entertains the human oddities he travels with, the dwarfs, bearded ladies, prostitutes, and pinheads. At eight feet tall, he’s a celebrity of the circuit, but he’s also begun to grow again, which means he’s dying. It’s at this time that he comes to the attention of John Hunter, the brilliant Scottish anatomist who determines that he must have the Giant O’Brien’s skeleton for his collection. The novel is slim, but Mantel manages to capture in her spare language the essence of the eighteenth century, with its cruelty, hypocrisy, and dawning preoccupation with scientific research. It’s the story of two remarkable men, set against the dying of the old world, and the birth of the modern age.

My favorite book of Mantel’s, however, is her autobiography Giving Up the Ghost, which can be enjoyed by everyone. It’s one of those books that, as a writer, I can so clearly relate to, pages where she describes what it’s like to be an imaginative child, a storyteller, an introvert in an extroverted world. She also describes what it’s like to be an intelligent woman, an academic, in a man’s world of the nineteen sixties and seventies. Her lifelong struggle with endometriosis, her misdiagnosis and subsequent battle with the medical establishment over her own body, are conflicts women everywhere can relate to.

Kudos, Hilary. You go girl.

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