Radio 4's Book at Bedtime this week and next is Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. This is doubly gratifying: not only is Hilary Mantel's third novel an excellent piece of work, it is also - in its unflinching portrayal of the Hell on Earth that is Saudi Arabia - just the kind of thing you might have expected the PC multiculturalists of Radio 4 to avoid. I'm sure the Saudi embassy will be sorely displeased. So hats off to Radio 4 for making this bold choice of Book at Bedtime.
They're making a good job of it too, with Anna Maxwell Martin a perfect choice of reader. The collaborative abridgement by Hilary Mantel and Sara Davies seems to have lost nothing of the novel's disturbingly sinister atmosphere, nor the loathing and disgust that infuses it. It's a great listen (you can hear it all on the Radio 4 iPlayer) - just as the novel (which I reread a few years ago) was a great read.
I first read Eight Months on Ghazzah Street - and the two earlier novels - after having been hugely impressed by Fludd, and I subsequently read each new Hilary Mantel as it came out (with one exception, which I'll return to): A Change of Climate (another, very different dystopian take on expat life), An Experiment in Love, the extraordinary Beyond Black... The one I never got round to reading, despite my best intentions, was Mantel's big historical novel of the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety. And sure enough, when Wolf Hall came out - another big historical novel - and then Bring Up the Bodies, another one, I balked again. Reader, I have not read Hilary Mantel's best-known, best-selling, prize-winning and most praised novels, the ones with which she found literary fame - and this despite having been a Mantel fan almost from the start of her career.
Is it just me being perverse? I don't think so (and my earlier non-reading of A Place of Greater Safety would suggest a pattern). I know of at least a few other Mantel readers who have found themselves strangely unable to read Wolf Hall and its successor. This seems to suggest that Wolf Hall created a whole new Mantel readership, bringing in huge numbers of new readers who only felt the urge to read her when she turned her attention to Thomas Cromwell. Which is odd - but good news for the author, who had certainly earned her eventual fame.