‘Giving Up the Ghost’ is Hilary Mantel’s memoir first published in 2003, six years before she won the Booker Prize in 2009 for ‘Wolf Hall‘. The ghosts in question are the ghost of her step-father, the ghost she saw in the garden at the age of seven and the ghost of the child she could never have.
Like Jeanette Winterson’s memoir ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?‘ which I read last year, ‘Giving Up the Ghost’ is similarly bleak, sparse, frank and literary. It is more about her early years before her career rather than her writing and even then, significant periods of her life, notably her teenage years, are only skimmed over. Rather than a straightforward, chronological and factual account of events, Mantel’s memoir comes across as rather disjointed but the raw emotion behind her writing is captivating.
The book opens with Mantel and her husband planning to sell and move out of Owl Cottage, the house where she can feel her step-father’s presence. After covering her early childhood and Catholic education in post-war northern England, the second half of the book describes her student days in London and Sheffield and focuses on Mantel’s battle with endometriosis which was misdiagnosed for several years and resulted in her being unable to have children. I hadn’t intended to read three-quarters of the book in one sitting but that is exactly what I ended up doing thanks to Mantel’s brilliantly controlled and utterly compelling account of this devastating experience.
At just over 250 pages long, ‘Giving Up the Ghost’ is quite brief compared to many of Mantel’s other work but it is one of the most powerful pieces of writing I have read so far this year. I don’t know if Mantel will ever write a second memoir in the context of her recent literary accolades but the next best thing can be found in this excellent article from ‘Intelligent Life’ magazine in which she recounts how winning the Booker Prize changed her life. Whether you’re a fan of Mantel’s novels or not, I highly recommend ‘Giving Up the Ghost’ which is a deeply moving and highly personal memoir.