This is a reread, too, but certainly not a comfort read. I wanted to see if Hilary Mantel’s 1988 novel is as sinister as I remembered – and it is. When cartographer Frances goes to Saudi Arabia to join her husband who is a surveyor on a building project, she doesn’t know what she is getting into. Mantel – who herself spent four years there with her husband – brilliantly describes the sights and smells and the noise of the city and the increasing disorientation that Frances feels. The Saudi women seem to her to be virtual prisoners – but then so is she. She is not permitted to work, or drive, rarely able to go out without her husband and confined to a dreary social scene of mostly appalling ex-pats. She becomes friends with a Pakistani woman in the next flat, but the cultural gap between them seems unbridgeable, her Muslim friend’s view of the West unrecognisable. They are often at cross purposes.
Frances begins to suspect that something is going on in the flat above, which is supposed to be empty. There is a rumour that an adulterous couple are meeting there – and this in a society where a woman can be stoned for adultery. Is Frances perhaps imagining things? Slowly, slowly an atmosphere of creeping claustrophobia and fear develops . . .
This is a book which, if anything, is even more resonant in its depiction of the gulf between East and West than when it was written, and it is deeply unsettling. This cover gives a misleading impression of the book, which is much darker and broader in its scope than this rather trivialising image suggests.
Well, a branch of Blackwell’s, rather than the company itself. Last week I went into Broomhill in Sheffield as I do every six weeks or so to have my hair cut and signs were up in the windows of Blackwell’s announcing that everything was half-price because the shop was about to close. I don’t know why: just not making enough profit, I guess, or maybe the rent had gone up. We used to live in Broomhill and I have bought many a book there over the years (there used to be a particularly good section on travel and a lot of the guidebooks on my shelves came from there). And I had my one and only proper book launch there in 2006 when FOOTFALL came out. So I am sorry to see it go. I am sorry to see any bookshop go. Now if you want to buy a book in Broomhill you will have to go to one of the many charity shops. Oxfam has a particularly large selection and stocks almost as much crime fiction as Blackwell’s did. But you won’t be able to order books there, or have the staff recommend books or choose books that they’ve enjoyed themselves to put on display. Of course you can get pretty much everything on-line, but you won’t get the little extras that make book shops special places. And yes, I do buy books on Amazon, but I make a point of buying from book shops as well. Otherwise they won’t be there when I want them. Further to last week’s blog: my friend Jonathan pointed out that Hilary Mantel’s WOLF HALL is written in the present tense – and also the follow-up, BRING UP THE BODIES. I can see why that works. If you want to bring the past vividly to life, to write in present tense help the reader to understand that it hasn’t always been history. For the people living then it was life right now, immediate and unpredictable, and anything could have happened. Perhaps that was why I instinctively chose the present tense when I wrote a historical short story.