In an interview with the Telegraph Hilary Mantel expresses an ‘I told you so’ attitude about the current difficulties the west is facing in deal with extremism. Her frustration stems from an understanding she gained of these difficulties living in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for four years in the 1980s and in 1998 publishing a novel on it. 8 Months on Ghazzah Street is a tense, paranoid, brilliant novel about Frances and Andrew Shore who move to the city when Andrew gets a well paying job.
The novel moves at a simmering pace, carefully placing important pieces of information to keep the reader feeling tense and uncomfortable. The gun men on the street, the sobbing upstairs in the so called ’empty apartment’. Rumour and innuendo spread by ex-pats.
Mostly, through its riveting account of the suffocating existence for a woman, even a man, in the Kingdom. Women cannot drive, they cannot work. Alcohol is illegal. The religious police are constantly lurking in the background. The punishment for adultery is hanging for men, and stoning for women. Frances is assured by her neighbour Jasmin that the stones are a mere token and the woman is then shot. ‘I’m relived’, replies Frances. In these conversations the East-West divide provides the central premise of this book. The polarity of experience and sensibility between Jasmin and Frances cannot remain hidden. Frances cannot help but judge, and Jasmin becomes defensive. These two woman represent two very different ideals and values and while they may be calmly discussing it over ‘bitter-tea’, its ramifications are ones we continue to feel today. As Mantel notes the book explores the ‘vast gulf of misunderstanding between East and West. It was in those misunderstandings that extremism breeds, because the image of the West there was so black and so distorted.’
The final chapters are hair raising, but we won’t give them away. Note to readers, once you have completed the book, go back to the memorandum on the first page and check the dates. There is a nasty surprise in stall for you.