An English critic and novelist (Fludd, 2000, etc.) summons the ghosts of her childhood and youth.
In some ways, Mantel’s early life was a struggle against ignorance and the brutalities that are its children. A stepfather brooked no disagreements and referred to her as “they”; classmates engaged in creative cruelty; teachers (especially one beast named Malachy) were boring and malevolent; a sexist university law tutor was a “talentless prat in a nylon shirt”; incompetent medicos prescribed psychotropics when confronted with complexity. Mantel begins and ends with the decision to sell their second home, a place in Norfolk she and her husband called “Owl Cottage.” Her stepfather’s ghost remained there. Mantel believes in specters and relates one particularly harrowing experience, when she was seven, of being occupied by a formless yet substantive horror she saw in the garden. At the time she was sure it was the devil. The experience became one of the enduring presences in her life. Mantel writes about the many other realities with grace, humor, irony, and, sometimes, bitterness. She tells about how she had two fathers living in the house at the same time (her biological father shared the dwelling with her mother’s lover), about her relationships with relatives and books. After reading stories about King Arthur she decided she would be a combination railway guard, like her grandfather, and knight errant. She takes us through the Davy Crockett and Elvis crazes (neither touched her much) and describes the remarkable day when she received the results of her pivotal eleven-plus exam: “Passed. So I can have a life, I thought.” The most alarming passages deal with her battles with endometriosis, a chronic gynecological disease undiagnosed for a decade by purblind physicians and sexist shrinks. Along the way, she has much of interest to say about the vagaries of memory, the betrayals of the body, and the art of writing.
Mantel’s voice, often gently whimsical, can also snarl with anger and bite with satire.