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 like Angela Brazil’s, for instance. Besides, Spark and Mantel share a sardonic tone, a Catholic background, and an eschatological undertow in their writing.
Mantel begins and ends her book in the present with brief shots of Julia as a successful psychotherapist and Carmel as a suburban housewife in an architect-designed house. Carmel reads The Daily Telegraph over breakfast, so presumably she votes conservative, whereas at college she never missed a Labour club meeting. In between, the narrative flashes forward and back between school days in the Fifties and Sixties, and university days in the Seventies. The book’s structure is unambitiously conventional. Its detail is brilliant. “I like to have you describe things,” Julia says to Carmel. “Descriptions are your strong point.” They are Mantel’s too. “We toddled down Curzon Street towards the town centre, turning left down Eliza Street at the pub called the Ladysmith,” she writes about Carmel’s walk to school in the Lancashire town where she was born.
Most streets had a pub on the corner, and they were usually named after the younger children of Queen Victoria, or dead generals, or victories in colonial wars; we were too young to know this. We rolled downhill, guided by the mill chimneys and their strange Italianate architecture—yellow brick and pink brick and grimy brick—and everywhere black vistas fell away, railway embankments and waste ground, war damage and smoke; at the end of Bismarck Street we looked down on the puffing chimneys of houses below, ranged in their rows, marching down and down into the murky valley.
We passed the Irish club, and the florist’s with its small stiff pink-and-white carnations in a bucket, and the drapers called ‘Elvina’s’, which displayed in its window Bear Brand stockings and knife-pleated skirts like cloth concertinas and pasty-shaped hats on false heads.
The town’s nineteenth-century past shows through its more recent past, and the recent past through the present. The mixture of social history and nostalgia haunts and pulls you in.
Not that Carmel feels nostalgia. Her childhood was miserable. She was an only child, her parents elderly and poor. They quarreled; mother dominant, father resentful, retreating into silence and jigsaw puzzles. Even the puzzles were not for fun; they had to be done properly, with discipline, from the outside edge inward. Carmel’s mother expressed her sense of thwarted superiority by grimly enforcing her strict but idiosyncratic standards of cleanliness and sartorial respectability; and she nagged her daughter to do hours of homework, pass exams, get into the genteel convent school where they taught Latin and Greek instead of domestic science, and expected their pupils to go on to university.
When Carmel trundles down the hill to infant school, she has to pick up Karina, who lives a few doors down. Karina’s parents are East European refugees—“Polish, Ukrainian, Estonian?” They speak broken English, work shifts in the mills, and are socially beneath even the McBains; Mrs. McBain enjoys patronizing them, and forces Carmel to befriend Karina, a fat, greedy little blonde. Karina helps with the housework more than Carmel does, so Mrs. McBain holds her up as a model. But even at the age of five, Karina is a pessimist with low expectations of life. Docile toward adults, she is full of envy and destructive venom toward other children, a baby sadist who enjoys belittling their achievements, and puncturing their dreams and ideals. Carmel hates her, and when they are very little, she kicks her plastic doll into the street. Karina weeps, and Carmel acquires a chronic feeling of guilt toward her. As a fictional character, Karina comes across opaque and mysterious, and her role in the novel’s tragic climax is ambiguous. Clever Julia sums her up as a peasant; and in fact she could be a junior version of the sinister and malevolent peasants that lurk among the birch trees in Russian novels.
Carmel and Karina are eleven when they win places at the prestigious convent school. This is where Julia comes into their lives. She is still Julianne, a doctor’s daughter from a well-to-do suburb. About the time she changes her Christian name, she sees the point of the dowdy, mouse-like Carmel, and takes her up. Julia is not only Carmel’s social superior, but also self-confident, laid-back, attractive, bright, sexy, and funny. She is the classic liberator of rites-of-passage novels, but she does not actually liberate Carmel much beyond making her able to joke about her own “lower-class ways.”
Carmel, Julia, and Karina all go on to London University and live in the same student hostel. Carmel and Julia share a room, Karina shares with Lynette, who must be Jewish because her surname is Segal. This is the clue to the novel’s subplot—or rather, its subterranean main plot. It would be easier to spot if Mantel had called her Cohen or Solomon. There is no other clue, and reading through the reviews of the English edition, I suspect that most critics missed it. They praise Mantel’s handling of the coming-of-age theme, her social observation, her wit, and her comic dialogue. But the big story, a whodunit about evil—remains underground.
Mantel loves Lynette. The girl seems like a real Angela Brazil heroine, “bonny and blithe, and good and gay”—too good to be true, really—though updated, of course, and therefore sexually experienced; and rich, chic, and hugely generous to boot. Lynette hands out Bendick’s Bittermint chocolates, lets other girls borrow her luscious fox fur coat, writes a check when one of them needs an abortion, and puts up with Karina because she feels no one else will want to share a room with her. Her glowing presence lights up the hostel episodes. They are almost shamefully enjoyable to read, with Mantel’s descriptive talent applied to the mean furniture, inhospitable bathrooms, overpowering central heating, and parsimonious meals; and her gift for dialogue to the teasing, probing, character-dissecting gossip as the girls sit on their narrow beds and worry about the future, their friends, their figures, pregnancy, anorexia, and the pill.
Carmel’s Lancashire boyfriend comes to see her in London. The visit is not a success and he breaks off their affair, her first and only: they have slept together since they were fifteen, Carmel is already starving herself inorder not to overspend her government grant; now she becomes seriously anorexic. The nausea and weakness are conscientiously described, but like the coming and going of the boyfriend, these passages seem perfunctory and déjà lu, which, of course, they cannot help being. They do not grab you; maybe because they have no bearing on the main theme of Mantel’s tale, which comes to a climax with a fire in the hostel.
The alarm goes off at night and the girls are herded out into the street in their dressing gowns and stand shivering on the pavement. As they watch the fire spread through the building, a figure appears at a third-floor window with flames coming out of her head and her ribcage; it is Lynette. There is no hope of saving her. Carmel notices Karina carrying Lynette’s fox fur over her arm. The key of their room falls out of the pocket. Carmel tries to pick it up. Karina puts her foot on it. Her “expression was hooded, complacent. She knew I would not give her away. After all, I said to myself, I don’t know that she is a murderer. Just because she has the key, it doesn’t mean she turned it in the lock.”
So the past rises up behind the present once more, only this time it’s a “Polish, Ukrainian, Estonian” past, with bodies burning. Suddenly one remembers the almost subliminal appearance of Karina’s angry, reclusive father, who would never open the door to anyone. Is he meant to be one of the two or three octogenarian East Europeans tracked down in the incongruous setting of an English provincial town, and accused of wartime atrocities against the Jews?
Mantel is too cagey to confirm or deny the suspicion. She specializes in shock effects, especially aftershock, which is what her book ghoulishly delivers. Her approach is slow and stealthy; the hair on the back of the neck rises, not all of a sudden, but gradually. The effect depends, of course, on the incongruity between the ordinariness of Carmel’s progress, and the horrors it skirts.
August 8, 1996