Hilary Mantel: Bringing ghosts to life

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LONDON - Hilary Mantel, whose death was announced Friday, communed with ghosts throughout her life: the ghosts from history that stalked her fiction, the ghosts of her Irish Catholic ancestors, and the ghosts of her unborn children.

The British author's accomplishments, however, were very real.

There were midnight queues outside bookshops for her last novel, the conclusion to her trilogy about the tumultuous life of Thomas Cromwell, the scheming chief minister to King Henry VIII.

Mantel, who was 70, became the first British writer, and first woman, to win the prestigious Booker Prize twice with the first two novels in the series, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies.

The third, The Mirror & The Light, was tipped by many critics to make an unprecedented treble but missed out. Mantel took the judges' snub in good grace.

"I think a book is born into a cultural moment and any book is carried on the cultural tide, so we just have to acknowledge that," she told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2020.

Mantel herself swam against the tide since publishing her first novel in 1985, Every Day Is Mother's Day, a darkly comic story about a mentally disabled girl and her terrifying mother, who communes with the undead.

It drew on Mantel's post-university stint as a social worker but was not the first novel she had written. That manuscript was drafted in the 1970s but only emerged in 1992 as A Place Of Greater Safety, set in the years leading up to the French Revolution of 1789, and its blood-soaked aftermath.

Much of her literary oeuvre dwelt on the historical or the supernatural. But Mantel did not shy away from attacking contemporary issues, including the British royalty and former prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Boris Johnson.

Interviewed by Italian newspaper La Repubblica in September 2021, Mantel said she planned to take up Irish citizenship, "to become a European again" after Brexit.

'Female, northern and poor'

Born as Hilary Thompson into a family of Irish descent, Mantel grew up in the austere 1950s bearing the three disadvantages of being "female, northern and poor", as recounted in her 2003 memoir Giving Up The Ghost.

The book describes a girl of otherworldly imagination growing up in a Derbyshire mill village and schooled by doctrinaire Catholic nuns.

The writer described losing her own faith by the age of 11, when she saw her father for ...

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