‘Comma’ by Hilary Mantel

Comma by Hilary Mantel, 2010

The magic trick:

Sentences that are both efficient and rich at the same time

Not sure I wound up buying the punctuation motif here.

Also kind of annoyed by the way the narrator grandly announces that years later the only reason she’s sure she didn’t simply invent childhood friend Mary Joplin is that Mary continues to play a prominent role in her mother’s stories. The statement isn’t annoying in itself. It only becomes disappointing when at the end – spoiler alert – we find out that, in fact, the narrator sees the real Mary Joplin years later as a adult. What happened to the figment-of-my-imagination stuff? Feels oddly sloppy, right? Maybe I’ve missed a crucial point here. I don’t know.

Here’s the thing, though. And you may have noticed yourself. Hilary Mantel is pretty decent writer. So there is so much here to enjoy, even if you’re like me and don’t feel especially interested in the comma nonsense.

The sentences are just better than those that other writers can write. I don’t really know how else to say it. She can create a mood around a setting in 10 words. She makes you feel that haze around the memory without having to tell you that she half-doubts that it ever happened. It’s very visceral writing in that way.

And that’s quite a trick on Mantel’s part.

The selection:

On those afternoons, buzzing, sleepy, our wandering had a veiled purpose and we drew closer and closer to the Hathaways’ house. I did not call it that then, and until that summer I hadn’t known it existed; it seemed it had materialised during my middle childhood, as our boundaries pushed out, as we strayed further from the village’s core. Mary had found it before I did. It stood on its own, no other house built on to it, and we knew without debate that it was the house of the rich; stone-built, with one lofty round tower, it stood in its gardens bounded by a wall, but not too high a wall for us to climb: to drop softly, between the bushes on the other side. From there we saw that in the beds of this garden the roses were already scorched into heavy brown blebs on the stalk. The lawns were parched. Long windows glinted, and around the house, on the side from which we approached, there ran a veranda or loggia or terrace; I did not have a word for it, and no use asking Mary.


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