Fiction – Kindle edition; Fourth Estate; 272 pages; 2010.
Whenever I feel like I am reading too many newly published books, I seek out something that has been languishing on my shelves for more than a year or two. In this case, it wasn’t so much my shelves, but my Kindle — yes, I have a virtual TBR as well as a physical one — and that was how I came to read Hilary Mantel‘s An Experiment in Love, which was first published in 1995.
I have only read a couple of Mantel’s novels — Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and Beyond Black — as well as her extraordinary memoir Giving Up the Ghost, and enjoyed them all. Previously, I would have described her as an under-rated and under-appreciated writer, but winning the Booker prize for Wolf Hall, which I am yet to read, has put paid to all that.
A novel based on personal experience
Even though An Experiment in Love was her seventh novel, it feels semi-autobiographical. The main character and first-person narrator, Carmel McBain, comes from a poor Catholic family in northern England — just like Mantel — and she attends university in London to study law — just like Mantel.
I wouldn’t like to draw further comparisons, because I am sure authors hate being accused of pilfering their own lives for creative content, but even the year in which the novel is set — 1970 — is the same year in which Mantel went to university for the first time.
While largely set in Tonbridge Hall, a hall of residence for female students, the novel is not so much a university (or college) novel, but one about a young woman, breaking free of her childhood roots to find her place in the real world. Carmel describes it as “a story about appetite: appetite in its many aspects and dimensions, its perversions and falling off, its strange reversals and refusals”. That’s probably a good summary because in its broadest sense An Experiment in Love revolves around appetites for sex, education, food, freedom and equality.
It is also one of those stories that begin full of optimism and hope, but as the narrative progresses, becomes tinged with melancholia and tragedy. It is not a cheery read, but its depiction of young womanhood at a time when society was changing rapidly — it was the era of the contraceptive pill and feminism — feels particularly authentic and poignant.
Tied to her past by an ever-present childhood friend
The narrative is one that flips backwards and forwards in time as Carmel recalls incidences from her childhood — all of which relate to Karina, who grew up on the same street and is now living in Tonbridge Hall.
The relationship between the two women is complicated because they are very much alike — studious, intelligent, independent — but also polar opposites in other respects — Karina is a “big girl”, while Carmel is so thin she becomes anorexic; Karina does not have a boyfriend, while Carmel is sexually experienced; Karina is prone to making hurtful remarks, while Carmel passively accepts them.
They effectively hate one another but cannot escape their shared — and “shackled” — history.
And yet the proximity of Karina, the sight of her stumping out into the London traffic and dirt, the presence of her name in our mouths—all these things led me helpless back into the past, memories pulling at me strong and smooth as a steel chain, each link hard and bright and obdurate, so that I was hauled out of my frail, pallid, eighteen-year-old body, and forced to live, as I live today as I write, within my ten-year-old self, rosy-skinned but rigid with fear, on my way by bus to take my entrance exam for the Holy Redeemer.
A fast-paced narrative
While not much happens in the book, it is a fabulously gripping read. There’s a real sense of excitement following Carmel and her student friends as they take their first tentative steps into the world of adulthood.
It is the immediacy of the writing which makes it a page-turner, almost as if Carmel has taken you into her confidence and is letting you in on family secrets.
And while Carmel is far from perfect — she can be petty, jealous, filled with self-loathing and occasionally xenophobic — she has a rather dry wit, which provides some unexpected laughs. Here’s an example:
In London that summer the temperatures shot into the mid-eighties, but at home the weather was as usual: rain most days, misty dawns over our dirty canal and cool damp evenings on the lawns of country pubs where we went with our boyfriends: sex later in the clammy, dewy dark. In June there was an election, and the Tories got in. It wasn’t my fault; I wasn’t old enough to vote.
Clear prose but rich in detail
Mantel’s writing is free from literary flourishes, but she has an uncanny eye for detail — the “angry-looking women” in the cotton town of her childhood wear “shoes like boats”; the factory walls are “plum-coloured brick, stained black from the smoke and daily rain”; and thin girls at university “blow up like party balloons”.
And she has her finger on the pulse in terms of social — and feminist — commentary:
Still, our lives were neither free nor pleasant. There was an agenda. We were to be useful to society. We would graduate, then marry, then be mothers, also nurses and teachers, brainy, dowdy, overstretched: selfless breeders with aching calves, speaking well of support stockings by the age of thirty-five, finding our comfort in strong tea with one sugar. We would be women who never sat down, women with rough hands and a social conscience, women with a prayer in their heart and a tight smile on their lips; women who, seeing an extra burden offered, would always step forward and suggest ‘Try me.’ You have heard of schools that train life’s officers: this was a school that trained life’s foolish volunteers.
As a portrait of the claustrophobic life of a women’s hall of residence — where the poor rub shoulders with the rich, where everyone knows everyone else’s business, and where a good meal is hard to find — this is an extraordinarily vivid novel.
And Carmel’s battle to come to terms with her past in order to move into the future is also brilliantly realised — and structured.
In 1996 Mantel was awarded the Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love. You can listen to her discuss the novel on the BBC Radio 4 archive. She has some very interesting things to say about women’s education.