Monday, February 22, 2010

Once upon a life: Hilary Mantel

For four years, the Booker prize-winner lived in the repressive, claustrophobic kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Until one day in 1986 when she and her husband left Jeddah and rediscovered freedom.

The Observer, Sunday 21 February 2010

At five o'clock on the morning of 13 March 1986 I stood with my husband in the half dark outside our house, listening. Nothing in this place was simple, so we thought: what if the car doesn't come? Beyond the contingent sprawl of buildings, the lunar landscape was silent: stars setting, and no birdsong in this parched place. The houses of our neighbours, unlit, seemed to have edged away from us, easing back into their little plots of dust. In the distance you could see the line of the highway: just the odd moving dot of a car, some early or nefarious commuter heading down to the snarled-up city. The grey light was indefinite; you wouldn't know, unless like us you repeatedly checked your watch, if this hour was dawn or dusk. We must have missed the call to prayers, blanked it. An Arab dawn comes, I had been told, when by the first glimmer you can distinguish a black thread from a white.

Then in the distance, hardly perceptible at first, the hum of a vehicle, coming uphill towards us, hidden at first by the curve of the road. When the car came into sight, the office car, we faced each other and smiled. My husband turned back to the house and locked the door. Our four years of Jeddah were over. We dropped the keys through the letterbox. I had hoped for a satisfying clatter: instead, a soundless tumble to the vinyl tiles.

It has an opulent image, Saudi Arabia, but the city was a building site in those days and everything around us had been provisional, odd or cheap. We had lived for two and a half years in city centre flats. The first was cavernous, bare and white, with acres of oatmeal carpet across which cockroaches sauntered in broad day, as if strolling in the park. It had vast double doors with many keys. To get out of the main door needed more keys. Then came the locked metal gate in the wall. When my husband returned from his office, with the Saudi Gazette and a brown bag of shopping, I could hear him approach, rattling like a gaoler.

After a few weeks the company moved us to another place, smaller, better for two. It was dark and the lights had to be kept on all day, as if it were the English winter. Each room had many doors, double doors made of dark wood, so it was like a coffin showroom. We took some of them off, but the impression of death persisted.

Our third move was to a small ramshackle "family compound", which we shared with nine other households. All the men were employed by the mining company my husband worked for; the wives were not employed, and spent their days wistfully plotting the shopping trips they were going to undertake with all the money their husbands were making, walking in their imaginations through the streets of other cities where they were rich and free. Our dwellings were prefabs long past their use-by date, and rats bounced around in the roofs, but I liked my house because behind our bed there was a wide, bright window. Each morning the yellow dawn spilled in, and light, light, that's what I craved; my eye was starved for it, my bones ached for it, my soul had become in its absence a brittle piece of grit or gravel, something you might walk over the threshold on the sole of your shoe.

It was in the coffin-maker's flat that I had finished my first novel. There, I had received a letter from London to say that a publisher had accepted it. My husband brought it home from the office and put it into my hand. When I read its first line my mouth opened but my ribs had stuck fast with astonishment, so I couldn't utter, couldn't breathe in or out; and it seemed to me that in those suspended seconds an era went by, during which every cell in my body was exchanged for a new and better type. in city centre flats.

In the house with the window behind the bed I wrote my second book. Then we were moved on again, to a blistering landscape outside the city, an expatriate settlement where you were unwatched, and so it was possible to step out without getting on your Islamic glad rags, your concealing drapes; except, of course, there was nowhere to step out to.
Read the rest of her story at The Observer online.

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