Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Fourth Estate, Hilary Mantel, literary fiction, London, Publisher, Setting

‘An Experiment in Love’ by Hilary Mantel


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.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Hilary Mantel, literary fiction, Publisher, Saudi Arabia, Setting

‘Eight Months on Ghazzah Street’ by Hilary Mantel


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 298 pages; 2004.

Take a look at Hilary Mantel’s back catalogue and I defy you to name another living British author with such a diverse range of subjects and genres under his or her belt. I’ve only read two of Mantel’s books — the delicious black comedy Beyond Black and her critically acclaimed memoir Giving up the Ghost — but have been keen to explore more of her work.

Eight Months in Ghazzah Street, originally published in 1988, came much recommended by visitors to this blog. It turned out to be a superb, insidiously creepy read, the kind of story that gets under the skin and has you throwing glances over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching you.

Repression and secrecy

It’s set in Saudi Arabia, a highly secretive and repressive society, where the religious police keep a close watch on everything, there are strict laws about what you can wear in public and women are not allowed to drive.

Into this restrictive and claustrophobic world come British expats Frances and Andrew Shore. Andrew, an engineer, has a job working for a private construction company in Jeddah. Frances, a cartographer, is forbidden from working, because of her gender, so she must spend her days “keeping house”.

Despite the fact that both are used to strange cultures — they lived in Zambia, where poverty, violence and corruption went hand in hand, for many years — Frances is immediately uncomfortable in her new surroundings. Instead of living in an expat compound, they’ve chosen to live among the natives, in an apartment block in a quiet neighbourhood. But everything is walled in and even one of the doorways has been bricked up, creating a cavern-like abode rarely penetrated by daylight.

Not long into their stay Andrew tells her about a psychiatrist’s study on the stress on immigrant workers, and you know his words are going to be prophetic:

‘When you get here and everything’s so strange, you feel isolated and got at – that’s Phase One. But then you learn how to manage daily life, and for a while the place begins to seem normal, and you’ll even defend the way things are done here, you’ll start explaining to newcomers that it’s all right really – that’s Phase Two. You coast along, and then
comes Phase Three, the second wave of paranoia. And this time around it never goes.’

Leaving the house becomes almost impossible. Even a stroll down the street, wearing her “baggiest smock and sandals”, is beset with unwanted attention from leering men:

A man in a Mercedes truck slowed to a crawl beside her. ‘I give you a lift, madam?’ She ignored him. Quickened her step. ‘Tell me where you want to go, madam. Just jump right in.’ He leaned across, as if to open the near door. Frances turned and stared into his face; her own face bony, white, suffused with a narrow European rage. The man laughed. He waved a hand, dismissively, as if he were knocking off a fly, and drove away.

With not much else to do, Frances befriends the Muslim women living in the building and finds herself unable to come to terms with the religious and cultural differences between them. She finds a similar discord with the expatriate community in which she is expected to socialise.

Before long paranoia takes ahold. Knowing that the apartment above her is empty, Frances begins to hear unexplained noises — a woman sobbing, footsteps and furniture moving around. When she sees a strange presence in the apartment block’s stairwell, she’s convinced that something illegal is going on, but no one, including her husband, believes her when she voices her concerns. Perhaps she’s going stir-crazy after all?

On the verge of a nervous breakdown 

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is a psychological thriller of the finest order. It reads like a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but because Frances is an intelligent worldly-wise woman, you know that her fears aren’t fickle.

Mantel builds up the tension slowly but surely, revealing Frances’ increasing sense of foreboding through diary entries that are interspersed throughout the third-person narrative. It’s a highly effective device.

Interestingly, the story does not paint a very flattering portrait of Saudi Arabia, but Mantel, who lived in Jeddah with her husband, a geologist, for four years in the 1980s, makes no bones about this. In the reader’s guide that comes with this edition, she writes: “When you come across an alien culture you must not automatically respect it. You must sometimes  pay it the compliment of hating it.”

Author, Book review, England, Harper Perennial, Hilary Mantel, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘Giving up the Ghost’ by Hilary Mantel


Nonfiction – paperback; HarperPerennial; 252 pages; 2004.

Hilary Mantel is an award-winning British author with whom I only have a passing acquaintance. I read her last novel, Beyond Black, in early 2006 and very much enjoyed its dark inventiveness, especially her quirky characters and the descriptions of a rather dull and dreary suburban England populated by ghosts.

Giving up the Ghost is her much-lauded memoir, released in 2004 to critical acclaim, and how, having read it, I can see many aspects of her character in Beyond Black‘s narrator, Alison Hart, an overweight psychic. Mantel never goes into specifics, but it’s clear that she has some psychic tendencies, too. On the first page of her memoir, she claims to have seen her stepfather’s ghost. “I am not perturbed,” she writes. “I am used to ‘seeing’ things that aren’t there.”

The book is peppered with other unusual claims, including her sighting of an undefined “creature” in the back garden when she was seven that “has wrapped a strangling hand around my life, and I don’t know how, or what it was”.

There are large gaps in her life’s account, and the narrative, while largely chronological, does jump around a bit. “But in this book I didn’t aim to tell the story of my life,” she writes in the afterword, “just the story of two aspects of it, my childhood and my own childlessness. It was never meant to be the whole story. Stories are never whole.”

A tale of two halves

This is a good summation of Giving up the Ghost, which can, effectively, be broken into two halves: the first tells of her childhood growing up in a working-class Catholic family in the grim suburb of Hadfield in Manchester in the 1950s; the second of her rather traumatic adulthood filled with a string of misdiagnosed illnesses which render her unable to have children.

By turns the book is funny and sad; it’s often witty but never mawkish, and I came away from it feeling that Mantel had led a very tough but somehow inspirational life.

From the outset Mantel’s childhood was riddled with family secrets — her father disappeared; her mother moved her lover into the house and then moved suburbs to avoid a community scandal — that caused her to live in an “emotional labyrinth”. Even when she escaped the family home and moved to London to begin her university law course, the dark ghosts of the past would not let her go…

By the time I was twenty I was living in a slum house in Sheffield. I had a husband and no money; those things I could explain. I had a pain which I could not explain; it seemed to wander around my body, nibbling here, stabbing there, flitting every time I tried to put my finger on it.

Candid writing

Written in a clear-eyed prose style, it is, at times, so honest as to be painful. Mantel admits that she struggles to write much of it. “Once you have learned the habits of secrecy, they aren’t so easy to give up,” she confesses mid-way through the book.

She is particularly frank about her various illnesses, which lead to her stacking on weight and “accumulating an anger that would rip a roof off”. And the ways in which she comes to terms with her infertility are also painfully candid, the hurt seemingly oozing off the page.

This is not a particularly cheerful read, but it is an inspirational one about chasing dreams, seeking answers and forging your own path in life. I loved it and now that I know more about Hilary Mantel’s life I hope to read more of her fiction very soon.

Author, Book review, England, Fiction, Harper Perennial, Hilary Mantel, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel


Fiction – paperback; Harper Perennial; 480 pages; 2005.

How to describe Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black? It’s not strictly a horror novel. It’s not a fantasy. It’s not a black comedy. It’s not a family drama. But it does have elements of all these genres combined in one slightly wacky, highly unusual and brilliantly engrossing work of fiction.

Life of a psychic

Alison Hart is an overweight and overwrought psychic who hires a manager, the stick-thin and heartless Colette, to sort out her business affairs. But what she is unconsciously seeking is not a business partner but a companion, someone to accompany her on the long drives through London’s dormitory towns where she peddles her trade as a medium, and someone to share her home life, which is populated by lowlife ghosts from the Spirit World.

In essence, Ali is seeking a protector, someone to make her feel safe in a world that offers constant threats and danger, both physical and metaphysical.

But what’s in it for Colette? She gets to finally escape her dim, dull husband. She gets a reasonably well-paid job that’s less stressful than her current corporate one in event management. She also gets to live in a nice new house and drive a nice new car. In short, she gets the chance of a much-longed-for fresh start.

What Colette doesn’t realise is that living and working with Ali is a 24-7 job that is testing, trying and claustrophobic. And what Ali doesn’t realise is that Colette is a control freak, who won’t even let her eat a piece of bread without giving her the third degree. It’s like a marriage but one in which both partners enter it with their eyes closed and then wonder why things aren’t going that well.

The ties that bind

Beyond Black is an exploration of the ties, both physical and mental, that bind these two women together. There’s no real plot to speak of, instead, the story is driven by these amazingly unique, rich but totally believable characters, two women damaged in different ways who are trying to make sense of the universe around them.

Colette spends much of her time interviewing Ali for a book that she wishes to publish about Ali’s life as a medium. But over the course of these interviews she finds out much more about Ali than she could have ever expected and Ali, in turn, begins to open up old wounds and memories she thought long forgotten about her traumatic childhood in which she was systematically abused by a succession of her mother’s male “friends”.

These memories are shudder-inducing and seem all the more tragic because Ali can’t quite make sense of what happened and it is up to the reader to join the dots, a literary effect that works brilliantly because of its heightened emotional impact.

Sprinkled throughout is a cast of superb supporting characters — Ali’s weird and exotic medium and crystal-ball-reading colleagues, the gang of nasty male spirits from her childhood who haunt her existing life, a tramp who lives in her garden shed, a mean-spirited, mentally-unbalanced mother — which greatly enriches the world that Hilary Mantel has created in this oh-so different novel.

And underpinning all this are real-life towns (Windsor, Slough etc), roads (London’s orbital M25, the M4 etc) and events (the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, 9/11 etc) that make this surreal story seem somehow more believable because they anchor it to places and events that I know.

All in all, a hugely offbeat novel, quite unlike anything I’ve ever read before, but wholly absorbing once I got past the first couple of chapters. I am now tempted to read more by this talented British author and would welcome suggestions by other readers about which title to try next.