12 February, 2014

Giving up the Ghost

Hilary Mantel, twice winner of the prestigious Man Booker Prize, as author of Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, has written a memoir - Giving Up the Ghost - about as she describes it - her childhood, and her childlessness.

I am a big fan of her writing, and in this book, there are such beautiful sentences that make me want to break out in cheers, at the same time feeling that I should just concede defeat now and never try to write anything ever again.

The sections about her childhood are wonderful, amusing and insightful and fascinating.  Then she moves to her adulthood, and her medical issues that led to her childlessness.  Her matter-of-fact explanation of her struggles to get doctors to take her seriously and treat her endometriosis left me in horror.  Not disbelief, sadly, as I’ve heard enough doctor horror stories to last me a life time, though hers are particularly bad. 

After a callous comment from a doctor – who was at least treating her, but said, "oh well, at least you won't need to use birth control" - she writes:
 “There are times in life when you are justified in punching someone in the face.  But I didn’t react.  I knew it was for the doctor to direct the blow, and me to absorb it.  Sometimes one takes a little pride in endurance of this kind.  At this stage it was all that was left.”
I think we can all relate to all aspects of that paragraph!

Ghosts are a recurring theme, and Mantel uses them as a construct to explain her childhood, and her childlessness.  And she does so beautifully.  This following is a selection from a most beautiful passage in which she focuses on her childlessness.  (Catriona is the daughter she never had.)
"(Children’s) … lives start long before birth, long before conception, and if they are aborted or miscarried or simply fail to materialise at all, they become ghosts within our lives.   

Women who have miscarried know this, of course, but so does any woman who has ever suspected herself to be pregnant when he wasn’t.  It’s impossible not to calculate, if I had been, it would have been born, let’s see, in November …

... No doubt there are ghosts within the lives of men; a man with daughters brings his son into being through wishing him, as a man somehow better than himself, and a father of sons wraps his unborn daughter in swaddling bands and guards her virginity, like an unspoiled realm of himself.  … The country of the unborn is criss-crossed by roads not taken …"
This, this is the answer to those who say "you haven't lost anything, you never had anything."  And she does it in such a way that is so inclusive, relating to many more than those of us who couldn't have children.  In a very gentle way, she refuses to allow that denial of our losses, of anyone's loss.

And she goes on to recognise the difficult process of coming to terms with all this.
"No advance in medical technology was going to produce Catriona; she was lost.  But when biological destiny veers from the norm, there are parts of the psyche that take time to catch up.  You understand what has happened ... But there are layers of realisation, and a feeling of loss takes time to sink through those layers.    … Mourning is not quick; when there is no body to bury, mourning is not final.”
She talks about healing, never once using the word, but we learn how she managed to move forward and start the next phase of her life.  And what a phase that has been.  One of the wonderful things about this memoir is that - because she is so famous now and such a phenomenal writer -  she has reached people who would never normally read about childlessness.  The book was recommended to me by a friend who loves Mantel's writing (as I do).  I hope that the parts that affected me, also opened the eyes of those who have never contemplated the position of those of us with no kids, or those who cannot have their own biological children, or who have never found their partner in life, or who had boys and wanted a girl (and vice versa).  Because I think we all have ghosts in our lives, or have had at some time.

I have tried to write this post with only limited use of superlatives.  But I failed.  Dismally.  Because this book is so beautifully, poignantly written, with dignity and humour and grace. 


  1. dear Mali, thank you for idea. I haven't known Hilary Mantel (I checked my local library - they haven't got even one of her books). Luckily Amazon delivers also to my country, so I have just ordered this book. Looking forward to reading it!

    1. Klara, I recommend her other books too. They are wonderful.

  2. WOW, THANK YOU for this. Need to share this in FB. Her writing is very beautiful and poignant indeed. Actually you haven't failed at all. This post has made me want to buy her book - later when I have extra money it'll be the first book I buy on my to-buy list.

  3. I found this book a few years back in the bargain pile (!) & when I read the cover notes, I immediately snapped it up. But it's been languishing in my gargantuan "to read" pile ever since then. :p Time to dig it out & put it nearer the top. ;) Thanks for the review!

  4. I absolutely love this!! She sums up so well the destruction caused both by miscarriage and infertility. She refutes the idea that nothing was lost so very well. Thank you for sharing this.

  5. Mali, thank you for this recommendation. It sounds like a book I need to read as I am still struggling to make sense of all this.

    1. Nell, I hope it helps. Or at least helps you feel that someone understands and can express how you feel.

  6. This resonates with me (and obviously others). Just this last week i spoke of the children who should be there but are not (and in my mind i saw the ghosts of them). And, for the first time i didn't get a negative response from the person to whom i said this (of course, that makes me wonder if she understood what i said!).

  7. Thanks for writing this. It is not often I allow myself to grieve my vanished twin, not often anyone puts into words how our dreams come to live with us as ghosts...
    (and had my Suzy been a boy, and therefore not my long dreamt of Suzy, I shudder. I would not have thought that grief was even valid...)