Eight Months on Ghazzah StFriday, 14 November 2014
Hilary Mantel wrote a number of books before her big breakthrough with Wolf Hall. Followed up by her second Booker Prize winner Bring Up the Bodies. I saw the two books, as plays, in London earlier this year. On the same day, matinee and evening performance so it was a Mantel overload.
I’ve just read one of her early novels, Eight Months on Ghazzah St, published back in 1988. It’s the story of an eight month stay in an apartment on Ghazzah St in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Hilary Mantel lived in the Kingdom for four years, when her husband was working there, just like the husband of the novel’s protagonist, Frances Shore. So the story is clearly based on her Saudi experiences.
They’re not good ones and she has stated that leaving Jeddah was the happiest day of her life. Looking back on the novel she said ‘I felt a bit frustrated because as events developed, I had a sort of I-told-you-so feeling.’ Much of the novel reads like an account of what it’s like to be a woman in such a ridiculously constrained society. Then it changes gear and morphs into a whodunnit, we’re never going to find that out but why they did it is the big question.
I’m not surprised, during my 2002 trek around Saudi Arabia I spent a few days in Jeddah – way less than Mantel’s four years or Frances Shore’s eight months – and it reinforced my view that this is one of the strangest countries I’ve ever visited. It would be the strangest, except shortly afterwards I visited North Korea and nothing tops North Korea for all around wacky weirdness.
Curiously no one has ever questioned my ranking of North Korea and Saudi Arabia as the two strangest, weirdest, most out of kilter countries in the world. But slotting Israel-Palestine in as number three behind those two has drawn some flack!