Friday, February 12, 2010

Hilary Mantel on living in Saudi Arabia

Hilary Mantel recently became famous for winning the Booker Prize for her historical novel Wolf Hall. I came across this brilliant essay of hers published in January 2009 in the London Review of Books on the claustrophobia of being a woman in Saudi Arabia.

I'd like to make two points:

1. Most successful essays end up being about more than one thing. Or they'll seem to be about going fishing with your dad but REALLY they are about overcoming the fear of death. This essay seems to be about this weird guy who keeps visiting Mantel in her apartment and about Mantel's weird experience in Saudi Arabia, but it is also about being a foreigner, and a woman, and all kinds of other broader, more universal things.

Now often when a writer sets out they start with an image or memory or complaint or anecdote and they don't know what the big ideas are that will come out. Almost no one who sets out to talk about Big Ideas in a personal essay is successful, unless they are extremely talented and experienced. It is possible that Hilary Mantel did set out to write about a sense of cultural and gender claustrophobia and decided that this man was a good entry point into that concept, but it is just as likely that this man had always been a strong element in her memories and she wanted to take a look at him on the page and see what came of it.

2. I think this essay is ultimately successful, and it certainly has beautiful writing and a great frame story, but for me there are too many elements: the diary, the moving furniture, the Arabic lessons, the book, the illness. Each strand is great, but together they weave quite a confusing braid that feels muddled and takes away from the intimacy of the piece. It would be very hard to pick one to eliminate, since they are all so lovely, but if I were the editor I would have done it. I'd be very interested in other opinions on this.

Again, here is the link to the essay.


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