An Experiment in Love
by Hilary Mantel
Henry Holt, 250 pp., $23.00
Hilary Mantel has just published a very cross article in The Author, the quarterly journal of the British Society of Authors. She grumbles about the large number of letters she says she gets, all deploring the pessimism of her novels:
They don’t, on the whole, have the nerve to assert that the world is a nicer place than I make it out to be. What they are challenging is my need to speak, in such plain terms, of the atrocious and the absurd; they are not complaining about me as a writer, so much as complaining about me as a person.
She is afraid that her readers may all be elderly, middle-class persons in cardigans. “The popularity of Jane Austen is one current cultural strand,” she writes. “Tarantino is another. Taste cannot be getting less violent, and simultaneously more violent, unless we have a completely divided audience.” The striking thing about her article is that she seems to accept the fact that, whether her readers are Janeites or Tarantino fans, they do not have high literary expectations—even though what she writes is “literary fiction published in hardback.”
The same thing could be said about Graham Greene. She has several points in common with him: she is the blackest of black comedians; she can make your flesh creep with horror and especially with the apprehension of it; and she often sets her story against a background of sinister political tyranny: South Africa under apartheid in A Change of Climate; Saudi Arabia in her creepiest and funniest book, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street; and in An Experiment in Love an evil regime of the more distant past. Another thing she has in common with Greene is an interest in redemption—and she sometimes puts in a character who is a saint of sorts. Greene was a Catholic convert; Mantel was brought up a Catholic though it is not clear whether she still is one; both of them understand about Original Sin.
An Experiment in Love comes on like a rites-of-passage novel. It has an autobiographical feel to it, and, being set in England, a fat element of class. Her first-person heroine Carmel McBain is an Irish Catholic working-class girl from a northern industrial town. She makes it to a middle-class convent grammar school, then to London University, where she has an unhappy love affair, develops anorexia, sees a friend die. It takes courage to go out on this well-trodden ground. Hilary Mantel does it deliberately, and makes that clear; Carmel jokes with her best friend Julia Lipcott (formerly Julianne, i.e., upwardly mobile) about whether they might fit into a novel by Edna O’Brien or Muriel Spark.
Muriel Spark is also cited in comparison by two of the reviewers quoted on the dust jacket. Like Spark’s Girls of Slender Means, Mantel’s young women live in a women’s hostel, and both novelists make the most of the ironic echoes this setting produces—echoes of old-fashioned schoolgirl stories …