Giving Up the Ghost by Hilary Mantel

This was one of the older books on my TBR, one that had been there since I was in my MFA program. A writing professor chose it for our class, but when we ran out of time, it was nixed from the schedule. I had tried starting Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost twice before, and I almost donated it. But I kept hearing great things about her fiction, especially Wolf Hall. Finally, I did something smart and read the synopsis of the book, which I rarely do. You can find out all sorts of things, like: this is a memoir, this is about Mantel’s mysterious body that always feels crippling pain, that she could have no children, and that she went to Catholic schools.

What confused me on previous attempts to read Giving Up the Ghost is that it starts out spooky — like she actually sees ghosts (maybe):

I am used to “seeing” things that aren’t there. Or — to put it in a way more acceptable to me — I am used to seeing things that “aren’t there.” It was in this house that I last saw my stepfather, Jack, in the early months of 1995; alive, in his garments of human flesh. Many times since then I have acknowledged him on the stairs.

This set up led me to believe the memoir was about Mantel’s relationship with her stepfather. Otherwise, why was he so present immediately? I kept reading, focusing on the synopsis.

giving up the ghost

The memoir quickly whisks readers away to Mantel’s childhood. She gives us too many names (highlighting does help), though some of these people shape her worldview, such as her grandfather. Mantel’s unique upbringing makes her an interesting narrator. Here is how she remembers her grandfather:

My grandad, when he was under arms, was an instructor in the Machine Gun Corps. It was he who would teach me all my martial arts. He could still recite the manual for the Vickers Gun, tripod-mounted, belt-fed, and I learned from him, just as, when she was a child, my mother had learned it. I expect we thought it would be handy.

This was before Mantel was about three-years-old, so when she does go to school she is disappointed that everything she’s learned is not applicable to Catholic education. Because her life is interesting and she knows how to write well, I thought that was the reason for her memoir. I hadn’t reached the stuff about pain and infertility yet, though.

Mantel has a dry humor throughout that I adored. When she asks her mother if she must continue going to school, her mother tries to explain that yes, Mantel must, or the mother will be summonsed to court. Mantel asks if this is being sued. A year later, when Mantel was six, she laments, “In in the morning I am too tired to get up, but I must go to school or I will be sued.” This is a technique comedians use. Basically, set up something funny early in the act, especially using a keyword, and then mention it again much later in the same stand-up special. “Sued” stands out, showing this lesson about going to school has carried with her over the years, giving adults a good laugh.

The focus of Giving Up the Ghost is what confused me. Starting with the selling a house where she last saw her stepfather (19 pages long), she moves on to her childhood (about 120 pages long), and then the rest of the memoir is about her body being in pain (60 pages). She’s eventually told she needs a hysterectomy at 27-years-old. But as Mantel digs into her infertility and what that means for a woman raised in the 1950s, I wondered how her childhood in Catholic schools led me to her frustration infertility. I assumed it would be pain dominating the conversation; the hysterectomy did not reduce it.

I’d argue Mantel could have gotten away with two books and spent more time on her adult life, marriage, and health concerns. Though it’s not a cohesive memoir, I still enjoyed myself as I read and do recommend Giving Up the Ghost. Despite not having a clear connection between the sections of the book, Mantel is clear about how childlessness has affected her in middle age:

Then a thing occurred to me, about ghost children. They don’t age, unless you make them. They don’t age, so they don’t know it’s time to leave home. They won’t, without a struggle, be kicked out of your psyche.

Prior to her realization, Mantel and her husband were buying houses and groceries as if they did have loads of children. Thus, we circle back to the beginning: selling the house. This, we learn, is an extra house, and a family with children could use it. Mantel is moving on.



  1. I enjoyed the two (so far) Wolf Hall books though I’m not sure I agree that Wolf Hall is Man-Booker level out of the ordinary. Enjoyed your account of her memoir, it certainly doesn’t sound very cohesive. As a father and grandfather I can understand that it must be very difficult for those who want to be parents and can’t. I hope in reading to them, my kids and grandkids, I have taught them something more useful than a Vickers machine gun manual, but maybe not!


    • I think the weird stuff our grandparents told us is what makes them so memorable. While learning educational information from grandparents is great, it’s the strange stuff that seeps into our child brains and enriches us.


  2. I’m glad you enjoyed reading this one, even if you didn’t think it was really cohesive. It sounds as though it gives insight into her way of thinking, which is interesting. And I always like it when an author can add a little wit into a book in an effective way.


  3. I love that passage you shared about the ghost children. Very moving, and applicable to so many things people hang on to far past their “use-by date.” I’ve never read anything by Mantel before.


    • This was my first Mantel book. I also thought her ideas about the ghosts of children was interesting, especially since now, thanks to social media, I am much more aware of the women in my life who’ve had miscarriages, difficulty conceiving, tried adopting, tried to manage with children they hadn’t expected, etc. There is so much about the role of children in families that I hadn’t thought of until social media, and to think that Mantel lived with all that mainly alone is sad.

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  4. Although I can see where your expectations and the blurb and the previous assignment/nixing could have set you up for confusion and potentially disappointment with this one, in general I feel like biographies and memoirs cut things short on the childhood and growing years, whereas I think there are a tonne of clues there for understanding a grown person, especially a writer, who spends (arguably) a lot of time in their own thoughts and memories, hearkening back to those years.


    • I really think the problem could have been solved if Mantel wrote two memoirs. The one about her childhood really rings of Jeanette Winterson’s style and (to some degree) weird life. Then, she could have had a second memoir about her physical health as a young woman and gone deeper there. Those years were skimmed over. In fact, for a while she lived in Africa (or was it Saudi Arabia??), but it was only mentioned.


  5. I’m not a huge fan of author memoirs since I find knowing too much about an author can get in the way of how I feel about their fiction. But as always with Mantel I love the way she uses prose in the quotes you’ve chosen. I’ve only read the two Wolf Hall books and a collection of short stories so far (some of which were clearly autobiographical too), but I really must try to read some more of her fiction…


    • I remember you writing just recently how you do not like memoir, which reminds me: why do I have so much memoir on my reading list for this year?? I must have had a phase when I bought a bunch of memoir, and these are all my “oldest shelved” books. Typically, I don’t read so much nonfiction. Just in the last two years it’s increased.

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  6. It’s really interesting that you don’t normally read the synopsis before starting a book. I almost always read it before diving in because it gives me context and I find it easier to figure out what to pay attention to while reading.


    • And when I’m reminding my students of good basic reading skills, I always tell them not only to read the synopsis, but to read the whole Wikipedia page (spoilers and all) so they can look for clues to then ending they know is coming while they read. That being said, I think writing a good synopsis is an art at which many publishers fail. That’s the main reason I don’t read the synopsis.

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  7. I have never quite warmed to Mantel and have never read any of her books. This does sound like it has an unusual structure and is almost two books struggling to get out of one.

    I learned from my Gran that watching commercial TV is OK and it’s alright to be naughty sometimes. I learned from my Grandpa that you can use long-distance endurance sport to escape your scary wife (these two were on opposite sides of the family). I learned from Grandma that you can be too tough and it’s better to have and keep friends than to drive them away. Hm.


  8. I had no idea she had written a memoir. I only knew her as the author who wrote those great big long books about the monarchy-but this sounds so intriguing!


    • She’s quite funny. When she was a kid, her expectations of things never matched what was happening. I like how she wanted to be a boy when she grew up — I did, too. There are a number of funny lines throughout.

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  9. My experience with Mantel is, honestly, avoiding Wolf Hall. It’s so overhyped by people who love it, whose literary opinions I don’t align well with, that I feel I shouldn’t read the book. We shall see.

    I am intrigued to find that this memoir is disjointed but well written and humorous. It makes me wonder if I’ve ever read a memoir all the way through because I liked the writing style or the humor. It’s easy for a memoir to become disjointed, I believe. Life is unfocused. It takes a structured mind to make a life story have a focus and goal. After all, it’s the little asides which make life interesting in my opinion.


  10. Interesting. I didn’t know that she wrote a memoir! I’ve read Wolf Hall and the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, but I didn’t really enjoy those books. So many people just love them, but I admit to continuing to read them because I was confused about why they were so popular.


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