cover image Eight Months on Ghazzah Street

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street

Hilary Mantel. Holt McDougal, $13 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-5203-9

Set in Saudi Arabia during the boom created by soaring oil prices in the 1980s, this sinuously crafted tale by Hawthorndon Award winner Mantel (for An Experiment in Love) uses the outsider status of a British woman and the minutiae of her daily life to mask and eventually reveal a chilling situation. Mantel builds a sense of disorientation, claustrophobia and paranoia in rendering the abysmal quotidian existence of Frances Shore. A cartographer, Frances has followed her civil engineer husband, Andrew, to the Red Sea port Jidda, where he is engaged in a lucrative construction project. Shunning the expatriate housing compound, the Shores move into a grim four-flat building on Ghazzah Street. Shut out from practicing her profession by the severe, ultra-sexist legal code of Saudi Islam, Frances writes in a journal and observes a domestic scene that comes to seem more and more ominous as she struggles to define the ever-shifting line between private morality and public order. A nonperson in the Muslim world, Frances is unable to break through a wall of prejudice about Westerners to come to a common understanding with her neighbors. She becomes hyperconscious of suspicious goings-on in their building, including a shadowy figure carrying a gun in the hallway. This story of a place where puzzles are ""more apparent than real"" ends provocatively with more questions than answers. Mantel's relentless pounding away at Frances's stultifying life offers a bit of misdirection, enabling the mystery to sneak towards its conclusion with disconcerting stealth. With marvelously understated wit, Mantel chronicles a world of teas and dinner parties that eventually coalesce into a sinister story of horror just beyond a veil. (Aug.) FYI: Mantel was only the third woman to win the Hawthorndon award in its 80-year history.