EIGHT MONTHS ON GHAZZAH STREET BY HILARY MANTEL
4TH ESTATE (PAPER BACK), 1988
BLURB FROM THE COVER
Frances Shore makes maps for her living, but when her husband’s work takes the couple of Saudi Arabia she’s lost within Jeddah’s ever-developing streets. The regime is corrupt and harsh, the cynical expatriates are money-grabbing and her warily curious Muslin neighbours remain mysterious.
Confined to her flat, Frances hears whispers from the ‘empty’ apartment above her. With only rumours to go on, nothing relieved her creeping sense of unease. As the days empty of certainty and purpose, Frances’ life becomes a blank – waiting to be filled by violence and betrayal.
‘Would you like champagne?’
This was the beginning; an hour or so out from Heathrow. Already it felt further; watches moved on, a day in a life condensed to a scramble at a check-in-desk, a walk to a departure gate; a day cut short and eclipsed, hurtling on into advancing night. And now the steward leaned over her, putting this question.
I really enjoyed Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, one of Mantel’s earliest novels. I’ve never read anything set in Saudi Arabia so I found it interesting to read about a culture and regime that is so different from what I know. I liked the contrasts between Western and Eastern culture Mantel offers in Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. Frances is horrified and fascinated in equal measures by life in the Kingdom especially the way women are treated. She is horrified to read about two Australian women, tourists who are raped in broad daylight in the souk. Frances’ Muslim neighbours believe the women asked for it because they wore shorts. She reads about women stoned to death for committing adultery. Yasmin, a neighbour tries to make her feel better by saying the women who commit adultery only have a few stones thrown at them before they are shot. This does not comfort Frances. I liked the way Mantel showed Frances’ increasing sense of isolation and fear. She is afraid to ask questions and not ask questions. She is afraid to leave her flat in case local men make lewd remarks but she feels suffocated being cooped up. She is afraid of unintentionally breaking a law or social etiquette and being arrested or stoned or executed. Her fears increase when the flat is broken into. Nothing of value is taken except some personal photos so she is convinced the break-in was some kind of message. Her conviction is increased when her husband’s co-worked is killed. Did he simply lose control of his car or is something much more sinister going on? I thought Eight Months on Ghazzah Street was great.