EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET: Hilary Mantel

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EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET: Hilary Mantel

EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET: Hilary Mantel

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For her novel, Mantel has embellished her miserable experience with a sinister mystery concerning a supposedly unoccupied flat in the gloomy building where Frances Shore lives with her husband, a contractor employed by the Saudi government. An unspeaking customs official had emptied the cigarettes from his packet of 20 and was slitting open each one, sifting the tobacco with lifted fingers, and sniffing it from time to time like some 18th-century dandy. Mantel's point is directly stated on page 234 when Frances tells the very tall Fairfax, "This is no place for men who like women. Una novela angustiosa en muchos momentos porque la autora consigue que te metas en el personaje de Frances y que de alguna forma vivas el confinamiento en el que se ven obligadas a vivir las mujeres en aquel pais, al mismo tiempo que reflexiona sobre las diferencias entre Occidente y Oriente, la corrupción politica y las apariencias. Poco più che ventenne, per anni, si dedicò a un grande romanzo che ha come personaggi alcuni protagonisti di primo piano della Rivoluzione francese.

I suppose it’s natural that so much attention gets devoted to Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy, but IMO some of her earlier works as just as notable. Instead her central character self-righteously clung to her right to wear short skirts, drink booze, and make her hosts uncomfortable. As for her description of Saudi Arabia, I came away with very little, other than the impression that it was dusty, bureaucratic, and a nightmare to drive in. But her friendships are with the Muslim, though not Saudi, women who live in her off-compound apartment block.

Yet, almost immediately following this exchange, Fairfax shows Frances a photo of his wife, who he describes as a "giantess," a woman who married him only because she could walk down the aisle in high heels rather than "shuffling up the aisle in gym shoes and bending her knees. On arrival, Frances, who has asked not to be in a compound next to Andrew’s colleagues and their families, is taken to a flat in a small building, which is well furnished (though without much taste) but seems rather remote.

This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Being kicked out of Saudi Arabia is one of the better outcomes; the worst is having to be in a jail or a hospital, where things happen, things that you can never prove, so officially, they never happened.

The city of Jeddah is steeped in darkness and changes too often to be caught on paper, while as a Western woman in this culture, she is both objectified and invisible. Frances and her husband, Andrew, are not able to get into one of the foreigners' compounds when he goes to work on a new ministry building in Jeddah and instead are installed in a company flat in an apartment block along one of the main roads. Reviewing the book in The Spectator, Anita Brookner wrote of a "tightness of control" and commented that a "peculiar fear emanates from this narrative". Although this book is listed as a novel, it is a very authentic depiction of life of an expatriate wife in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s. We all know this backward desert of Wahabism is terrible, but just how offensive it is to Western sensibilities, how hypocritical the royal family is to commit every sin in the Koran while inflicting this puritanical code on its citizens, and how corrupt this combination of hypocrisy and wealth can be is -- painfully -- drawn with Mantel's gifts of description and characterization.

When it comes through early, she joins him in an apartment on, you guessed it, Ghazza street where they were not surrounded by other British expats. Mantel was so masterful in evoking a suffocating environment that the suspense soa(u)red halfway into claustrophobia. I got to visit Riyadh Saudi Arabia in May 2015 for short period and I was looking for a book that tell me more about the country and life there. What I did like about the book was the foreboding and claustrophobic atmosphere full of secrets and corruption.

My favourite aspect of Hilary Mantel's writing is the way she renders the mundane into poetry through her lyrical turns of phrase - the description of the money-lenders' office, for example. When I arrived "home" - the first of my four homes in the kingdom - I found I had lost a single shoe. Continuò a scriverlo anche durante la permanenza in Botswana con il marito, alla fine degli anni Settanta ma uscirà soltanto vent'anni circa dopo l'inizio della stesura. Con il marito geologo si trasferirono poi per qualche anno in Arabia Saudita, dove scrisse il suo primo romanzo pubblicato: Every Day is Mother's Day, che uscì nel 1985; ma intanto teneva anche dei diari che certamente stanno alla base di questo romanzo ( Eight Months on Ghazzah Street), che uscì nel 1988, dopo la continuazione del primo: Vacant Posession (1986). You find yourself breaking laws because it's what everybody does, and on some level you know you are also taking a terrible risk, because at any time, suddenly, that law may be enforced.

Following the death of Hilary Mantel it was suggested by someone in the group that we read something from her back catalogue. The story is modeled after "Turn of the Screw" by Henry James and, as such, leads to a suspenseful ending. Officially, like a lot of other things (alcohol and extramarital sex being two other obvious examples) bribery does not exist but it clearly does.Hillary has captured in minute details all the challenges faced by a a British expat on her first outing in Saudi Arabia, the most extreme face of fundamental Islam. Andrew says that she is imagining it, though others suggest that the Deputy Minister, who allegedly owns the building, may be using it for a love nest. What Mantel does well is to replicate Frances’ sense of unease, I don’t think the reader ever quite relaxes – the society is not one many of us in the west would want to live in.



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