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Hilary Mantel: An Experiment in Love

Mantel’s story is about Carmel McBain whose tale we follow, in flashback, from her early school days to the latter part of her university days. She is the only child of elderly parents, Catholic, and living in a relatively poor town in Lancashire. She goes to Catholic school, under the ever watchful eye of Sister Monica, a typical ferocious literary nun. She is intelligent and does well at school, though does not always toe the line. She only has one friend, though it is a somewhat fraught friendship. Karina has an unpronounceable Eastern European name. Carmel never learns which country she comes from as Karina is resolute in the fact that she is English and English is the language spoken at home. Karina’s mother, Mary, is also the sort of friend of Carmel’s mother. The two girls go to school together and when it is decided that Carmel will apply for Holy Redeemer, Karina applies too. The two daughters with their respective mothers go to the school for the entrance exam together and, when the girls are both accepted, go shopping for clothes and supplies together.

At Holy Redeemer, the two girls drift apart as Karina seems to become stranger and Carmel becomes friends with Julianne Lipcott. The novel starts, with the arrival of Carmel at a hall of residence for women at the various London universities. Carmel opts to share with Julianne, as both want to avoid the now even stranger Karina, who ends up sharing with the well-off and likeable Lynette. The three stories – primary school, Holy Redeemer and university are told together – and we learn gradually about the relationship between Karina, Carmel and Julianne.

Apart from parents and studies, there are two main areas of attention. The first is food. Karina is always eating and puts on weight (though, as we learn at the end, that is partially due to pregnancy). Carmel, on the other hand, is anorexic. She barely eats at all once at university and gets worse when her boyfriend, Niall, breaks up with her. In the end she collapses and has to be fed. Sex, of course, is another main ingredient. Apart from being seen hanging around with some strange-looking boys at the bus station, we learn little of Karina’s sex life till we find out about her pregnancy. Carmel is on the pill and seems to have a satisfactory sex life with Niall, a near neighbour in her home town. However, when he goes to a different university, they keep in touch with a daily letter and she even spends the Christmas holidays at his house, to her parents’ disgust but, eventually, he decides to break up with her. No reason is given and she does not find another boyfriend. If Julianne does have a sex life, we do not know about it though she does disappear one weekend and Carmel suspects that it is to get an abortion. Sue, their neighbour in the hall of residence, is a committed Christian but she gets pregnant and only has an abortion with the greatest reluctance.

The novel is, to a great extent, about how women try to deal with life, including but certainly not limited to sex and food. Carmel is teased by others, because of her left-wing views, as being likely to be the first woman prime minister. Ironically, the hall of residence gets a visit from the then Secretary of Education who will, of course, become the first British woman prime minister. Mantel superbly illustrates the trials and tribulations they go through, from anorexia, religion and money to men, studies and family. At the same time she tells an excellent story of life just as Thatcher arrives on the scene. It is not clear how far in the future Carmel is telling her story but she makes it clear that she is very much on her own, despite being married.

Publishing history

First published 1995 by Viking