Commenting on a book as good as this requires firm control over superlatives. On the jacket of Hilary Mantel's memoir, the publishers have unwisely covered it with such quotes from other writers, as though we, the readers, will not realise from its first page that we are in the presence of a masterpiece. To avoid superlatives and to help the cause along: anyone who liked Lorna Sage's Bad Blood will like this book better.
Hilary Mantel has always been a spiky, clever writer, with a black, stubborn heart and an unsettling intelligence - a Bette Davis of her generation. This account of her first 50 years on earth tells us where this heart comes from. She was a frail, "old child", born in 1950 into a working-class Derbyshire world of mills, pinnies and "dinner" at lunchtime. From the age of four she confronted boredom, that terror of the over-intelligent, with every tool to hand except for despised dolls that cried "Mama" when rocked.
Her family were not boring, and she loved them, parents and grandparents, and numerous great aunts and uncles. Nothing wrong there, except poverty and thwarted ambition, par for the course for that class in those days. However, from the very beginning Hilary Mantel saw things that weren't there.
Much of this can be put down to ill health. Her child's body seemed invaded by spectres and inflammations, which gave her migraines, aches, pains and strange dreams. Being raised as an English Catholic (which came by way of Ireland) gave her vivid language, images and visions aplenty for her ghosts, and underlined the stories her body told her. It also provided this brave little girl with a malevolent and stupid world possessed by devils only cats can see. The devil within, in the shape of constant illnesses, then had to battle with the devil without, in the form of Catholic nuns and their "systematic crushing of any spontaneity".
The "huge expenditure of energy" it takes to grapple with such lunacies and with extreme physical pain has given a sharp and fevered tone to her memories. Hilary Mantel has a good deal to be incandescent about. She read and absorbed words as soon as she could, and found them always and ever after a refuge from the "Palace of Silly Questions", which was school, and the Inferno of Rotten Doctors, the medical men who condemned her to 30 years of agony and ill health.
Hilary Mantel had endometriosis, that disease of the womb which invades and tortures the female body, but which is perfectly curable if caught early enough by doctors who do not think women have hysterical or neurotic problems and so dose them with Valium and Largactil, which is what happened to Hilary Mantel. By the time she was properly diagnosed, it was too late; she was to be childless forever, and her thin northern body had ballooned into a carapace as large as the brain inside it.
There is much else in this rich book. Every house she has lived in, ghosts and all, is described as vividly as human and feline companions. Every story, searing or otherwise, is told with quips, asides, paragraphs and phrases that make one laugh out loud. Her sense of humour is high and black, and low and easy. As her disease made her balloon from a slight little thing into a woman whose size knows no name, she describes herself as looking "hollow-eyed, like a turnip lantern". She notices a local greengrocer-florist called Meloncaulie Rose. About to go under the doctor's knife, her last thought is: "If I wake up a vegetable put me in a stew." She is wise and can summarise women's lot thus far (and who knows for how long yet?) in a stroke of her pen - her grandmother "so creased by anxiety that her face resembled a pleated skirt"; "Women didn't take their ease; when young, I thought, they ran about, and when old they perched on upright chairs until they died."
Like all exceptional books, this one has the odd flaw - her prose quivers a tad sentimentally when it comes to recalling early years in prams and suchlike. But the biggest gap is the story of her mother and father. Her worship of the former and the loss of the latter, and the shaky semi-attachment to the stepfather who replaced him, lack the brutal honesty of the rest of her account. Perhaps when Mantel addresses this, she will give us the great works of literature she has in her gift.
Carmen Callil is writing a book about Vichy France