Monday Muse – Hilary Mantel

That’s right, I’ve actually chosen a writer this week! I’ve been reading a lot of Ms Mantel lately and decided it’s high time I officially recognised her genius.

She is an English writer whose impressive body of work includes memoir, short stories and essays as well as novels, the only form of her writing I’ve read so far. She is the first woman to have won the Booker prize twice, for her Thomas Cromwell novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. There is a third instalment on the way, which I’m both anticipating and dreading. If you know your history, you know what happens to Mr Cromwell, and if you don’t, you can probably guess. I’ve become very fond of him over the course of the first two books hence my apprehension regarding the third.

But this is also a good thing because it shows Mantel’s skill at portraying characters. I’ve read three of her books so far and I’m currently on the fourth (A Place of Greater Safety), and I can honestly say each of her characters has been unique and memorable. 

She seems to excel at historical fiction. A Place of Greater Safety is an epic tome set during the French Revolution, not one of my favourite parts of history it has to be said, simply because of my memories of studying it. But even though I’m only a few chapters in, I’m already caught up with the characters and their different stories. Mantel has a way of creating the world in a seemingly effortless way; it’s in the little details and her knowledge of the history of the place. It’s clear she has done her research and then blended her fiction in so you can’t tell which is which.

Her writing is so varied in subject matter that she didn’t shoot to fame until her success with the Cromwell novels. She’s covered so many different things, from giants to psychics to missionaries, and so many different time periods. It’s heartening for a writer like me, who also has such eclectic fascinations and likes to blur the boundaries between reality and fantasy; I don’t wish for her success, only for her perseverance. 

Her style is one that will be loved or hated, almost instantly. As soon as you start to read one of her novels, you will either feel excitement at what you are seeing or frustration. I obviously love her style but many people don’t and I don’t think this is a bad thing. After all you can’t please everybody so why not write in whatever way comes naturally. Mantel said she didn’t want to start changing the way she writes:

It makes me think that some readers read a book as if it were an instruction manual, expecting to understand everything first time, but of course when you write, you put into every sentence an overflow of meaning, and you create in every sentence as many resonances and double meanings and ambiguities as you can possibly pack in there, so that people can read it again and get something new each time.

One piece of advice I read by Mantel was to be confident about your abilities; have no shame in this. She describes tuning in and feeling the way of a story or a character’s voice and being overjoyed when she discovered Cromwell’s voice. I have felt the same way about writing, when I uncover a way that feels right.

She writes bravely and admits she is much braver on the page than in person. Her boldness in the way she expresses time, place and people is breathtaking and inspiring. Even if her style isn’t to everyone’s taste, all writers can learn from Hilary Mantel.

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