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Hilary Mantel: Ink in the Blood
Jane Shilling on the exhilarating possibilities offered by Hilary Mantel's short work of non-fiction, Ink in the Blood, now offered as an e-book.

‘Considering how common illness is,” wrote Virginia Woolf in her essay “On Being Ill”, “how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed… it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love and battle and jealousy among the prime themes of literature.”

Eighty years after these words were published, how gratified Woolf would have been to find Hilary Mantel reporting with graphic immediacy from the undiscovered realms of malaise. Or perhaps not, since Mantel describes Woolf’s essay as “schoolgirl piffle” and concludes by calling her a “wuss” for obeying her doctors when they forbade her to write.

Ink in the Blood, Mantel’s short memoir of undergoing an operation this summer, began as a diary for the London Review of Books. It is a magnificent fusion of vivid linguistic precision and half-morbid, half-ironic fascination with decay and death. One night in her dreams, she notes, she met 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.”

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The Telegraph