I read one of Hilary Mantel’s earliest works, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, as part of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. I love how varied her books are; rather than deal with a historical setting here, as she does in the much-lauded Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety, this is a contemporary story of Saudi Arabia. Whilst it has not been favourably reviewed on the whole on Goodreads, Time Out calls it ‘A Middle Eastern Turn of the Screw with an insidious power to grip’, and Literary Review heralds it a ‘stunning Orwellian nightmare’.
The novel feels rather autobiographical, in that Mantel herself lived in Saudi Arabia, and Africa before that, as her protagonists here do. Mantel is most involved with the story of Frances here, a British woman who has moved to the country with her husband Andrew, who has found work on a large and well-paid project as an architect.
Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.
On her first morning in Jeddah, after an exhausting journey the previous day, Frances is accidentally trapped within the flat: ‘When Andrew locked me in, I thought, it doesn’t matter, because I won’t be going out today. As if not going out would be unusual. I didn’t know that on that first day I was setting into a pattern, a routine, drifting around the flat alone, maybe reading for a bit, doing this and that, and daydreaming. I can see now that it will need a great effort not to let my whole life fall into this pattern.’ She writes later that the regime in Saudi Arabia, which so suppresses females, ‘is like being under house arrest. Or a banned person.’
Incredibly enlightening, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is told from two perspectives – that of the omniscient third person, as well as Frances’ diary entries. A lot of people have mentioned in their reviews that barely anything happens within the novel, but I think that this works well; there is a mystery at its heart, but this is very much a secondary storyline. Rather, Mantel is more concerned with demonstrating what life is like in Saudi Arabia for a woman, and a European one at that. I found the novel engaging and engrossing, and felt that it is just as valid now as it was when it was published thirty years ago. Very little seems to have changed, in fact. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a tense and chilling novel, despite the fact that one can feel the claustrophobic, searing heat of Jeddah throughout.