Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Ink in the Blood ~ Hilary Mantel

Book browsing round the internet can be every bit as serendipitous as browsing round a bookshop or a library.  The other evening I came across something I hadn't realised existed, the text that is available in e-book form only.

I was actually looking to see if there was any indication as to when the sequel to Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall was likely to be published.  What I found instead was a book by her that came out at the back end of last year, about which I'd heard nothing, Ink in the Blood.

Why hadn't I seen copies of this when I was bookshop mooching last week? Well, the reason soon became apparent.  The book is only available in digital form.  And, I assume it is only available this way because, even in quite a large print format, it only runs to twenty-four of my I-Pad pages.  Now I can't see any publisher putting out a print run of a book that has just twenty-four pages.  It surely wouldn't be economic.  But, issuing it via the e-reader is another matter entirely, suddenly all sorts of vistas open up.  I can foresee a renaissance of that stalwart of previous centuries, the pamphlet and it would be a wonderful way of reaching a wider market with short stories.  No more waiting until you have enough for a collection, issue them one at a time.  Perhaps this is already happening and I've just not yet caught up?  Any way I'm glad to have discovered this example, which I have to say is nothing at all like Wolf Hall.

Ink in the Blood is, as its subtitle says, A Hospital Diary.  I hadn't realised but apparently Hilary Mantel was extremely ill last summer and in hospital for a very long time after surgical complications.  Indeed, she was lucky to have survived at all.  During her recovery the combination of pain, infection and the medications that were supposed to be fighting her illness induced the sort of hallucinations that you really wouldn't wish on your worst enemy.  With typical Mantel humour she calls them her 'hallies'.

Later the hallies, as I think of them, become less threatening, but more childish and conspiratorial.  I close my eyes and they begin to pack my belongings into a pillow case, whispering and grinning.  One sharp-faced dwarfish hally pulls at my right arm, and I drive her off with an elbow in her eye.  After this they are more wary of me, intimidated.  I see them slinking around the door frame, trying to insinuate themselves.

And then there are the nightmares.

Sometimes I incorporate the sensations into nightmares and imagine, for instance, that the bed is on fire.  One night in my dreams I meet the devil.  He is 32, 34, that sort of age, presentable, with curly hair, and he wears a lambswool V-neck with a T-shirt underneath.  We exchange heated words, and he raises a swarm of biting flies; I wake, clawing at my skin.

Well, you just know, don't you that anyone who combines a lambswool V-neck with a T-Shirt has to be up to no good.

Her grasp of the guilt that I'm sure we all feel when we are sick is so exact; that 'I shouldn't be here causing all this trouble' reaction.

The staff are there to reassure me, and I am there to reassure them; in this way we shield each other from the experience of darkness.  One day soon after the surgery I vomit green gunk.  'Don't worry!' I exclaim as I retch.  'It will be fine!  It's just like 'The Exorcist,'' I say, before anyone else can.

I could go on quoting from this wonderful book all afternoon.  There isn't a page without something memorable to be enjoyed.  But what about the writing of all this.  I can't imagine that I would be able to put two words together let alone something as sharp and telling as this.  For Mantel it was her life line.

The black ink, looping across the page, flowing easily and more like water than like blood, reassured me that I was alive and could act in the world.  When Virginia Woolf's doctors forbade her to write, she obeyed them.  Which makes me ask, what kind of wuss was Woolf?

And I find something very reassuring in this small book that is the result of Mantel's need not to be wuss.  I loved Wolf Hall and eagerly await the sequel (presumably now, somewhat delayed) but I missed the dark humour that is to be found in books like Beyond Black.  If that sort of Mantel is to your taste as well then you really should get hold of a copy of this and while sympathising with her suffering relish the writing that has resulted.


  1. I liked Ink in the Blood too. I was pleased to read it after missing seeing Hilary Mantel at the Borders Book Festival last year - she had to cancel because of illness. I'm looking forward to the Wolf Hall sequel too.

    Glad to find you back on a blog!

  2. What a great find! I'll have to check to see if my library has it to lend through their ebook program.

  3. Hi Margaret, I had to put blogging on hold last year after a sudden deterioration in my health. I missed it terribly but has to wait until I could ditch one or two other things and so try and come back without over taxing myself. Finger's crossed this time. Off course, you're now so much closer for things like the Borders Book Festival. Lucky you.

    Stefanie, I hope you can get hold of a copy. Would that our library had ebooks. Mind you, the way things are going over here at the moment I should just be glad that I still have a local library of any sort.

  4. This sounds awesome! Of Mantel's backlist I've only read Wolf Hall, which I loved, but I'm also a huge fan of dark humor, so it's exciting to think that I have it to look forward to in her other writing.

  5. Emily, be warned, Mantel is one of the most diverse writers I know. The only other book that is remotely like 'Wolf Hall' is 'A Place of Greater Safety'. I think everything she writes is superb, but not all readers would agree with me.

  6. I really need to read *something* by Mantel soon. I have Wolf Hall on my shelf, but it's kind of intimidating. Perhaps I should start elsewhere. I have a feeling I'll love her writing once I jump in, and the passages you've quoted here reinforce that feeling. I'd not heard of this one either -- thanks for bringing it to my attention!

  7. Hilary and I don't run in the same circles, I'm afraid. I've tried both Beyond Black and Wolf Hall and didn't mesh with her at all. But for the sake of all those who adore her I'm glad her health has improved.

  8. Erin, although it's not typical of her work in general I would suggest starting with her memoir 'Giving Up the Ghost'. I think it throws a tremendous light on her fiction, (She really did have the most appalling childhood.) and I don't think you can begin to understand 'Beyond Black' without that background knowledge.

    Anbolyn, thank you. I know a lot of readers who have difficulty with her. I think she's worth persevering with because she rarely writes the same type of book twice, so there's always the chance you might get on with something else. 'An Experiment in Love', for example, is totally different from both 'Wolf Hall' and "Beyond Black'.

  9. I love Hilary Mantel. I've been holding back on reading Wolf Hall since there's a sequel; I know I'll want to read them close together if not back to back.

    I thought I'd read her hospital diary on-line a couple months back, but now I'm wondering if I read a mere excerpt. Her hallucinations reminded me very much of the ones I had while I was hospitalized with preeclampsia.

  10. Susan, it may well be the same thing. It is very short and I can see that it would have been a good subject to post online. I've only had hallucinations occasionally when my adrenaline levels have been over the top and nothing like Mantel describes. If you've had the same thing then you have my sympathy.

  11. I didn't get on very well with Beyond Black, and I've been uncertain about reading Mantel again, but it's good to hear that her writing is very diverse, because that makes another try seem worthwhile. I haven't heard of many books, even short ones, being published only online, but my guess is that it will happen more and more.

  12. Dorothy, tentatively, because it's always difficult recommending books, I think, I would say try 'An Experiment in Love'. It's sort of a coming of age novel, although defining any of Mantel's novels is a difficult business. It's also much shorter than any of the others so if you don't like it you won't have invested that much time.

  13. I loved Wolf Hall, and I didn't know there was a sequel coming! That is great news. I like the sound of Ink in the Blood.

  14. Musings, I suppose the only downside for the reader is that Mantel's illness means we are going to have to wait some time for the second part and that's going to force me at least to have to re-read 'Wolf Hall'. 1200 pages at a go is going to demand some stamina!