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The year is 1970 and Carmel McBain, a young girl from a working class, northern mill town is starting university in London. Joining her in the same hall of residence are two girls from the convent school she used to attend, the beautiful, worldly Julianne and the mysterious, baleful Karina. Carmel has known Karina since infant school. Their friendship was always ambiguous, characterised by mutual need and mutual loathing. Carmel's feelings towards Karina were a mixture of pity and fear. When Carmel got to know Julianne later on in school, she began to spend less time with Karina. On arrival at university, Julianne seems set to put her old life behind her, which means having nothing to do with Karina. Carmel is unsettled by Karina's presence. Although she doesn't want to hang around with her either, she feels guilty.
The story is narrated by Carmel and the narrative flicks back and forth between Carmel's life at university and her childhood days. It describes Carmel's relationship with her parents (particularly her mother, a pushy matriarch, who wants the best for her daughter) and her experiences at convent school. We learn how she came to meet Karina and Julianne. We begin to understand the part Karina played in Carmel's life and the experiences which bonded the two girls and, conversely, alienated them from each other. Clearly Karina had a big influence and will continue to do so. "I didn't know that her stubby fingers would tie my past to my future," Carmel states. Are Carmel, Julianne and Karina destined to remain together, their lives 'knotted up beyond hope of severance"? The book builds to a dramatic and shocking climax, which leaves the reader reeling. It certainly made me acutely aware of the limitations of 'sisterhood' and the power of betrayal.
Mantel writes eloquently and with depth. Carmel is a complex character and I found her difficult to define and hence very credible. Just when I felt I was starting to understand what made Carmel tick, another facet of her personality emerged to confuse yet intrigue me. On arrival at university she feels uncertain. "I was a child and I had been nowhere until now", she states. She is keen to embrace feminism with all its promises of educational and sexual emancipation. However, this does not fit very well with the Catholic values that were instilled in her from an early age. Carmel also feels embarrassed by her working class roots, despite joining the Labour Club at university and believing strongly in equality. Carmel's experiences struck a chord with me as I thought back to my own university days. I too felt self-conscious about my northern accent. I experienced the thrill of finally being independent, but it was tinged with the pain of home sickness.
The book paints a fascinating picture of the era, showing that, although feminism had made some strides, there was still a long way to go, and we see lots of examples of it being thwarted. Through the lives of the other female characters at Carmel's hall of residence, the author explores the aspirations of a generation of women that have grown up to new opportunities. They know they don't just have to settle for marriage and motherhood anymore and they have the pill to give them greater freedom over their bodies. In spite of this, many of these smart, independent women still crave husbands, homes and babies. As Carmel observes, "Nature had been driven out with a pitchfork and was creeping her way back in." We also see that the class divide is alive and well. Julianne comes from a middle-class home and, although she and Carmel get on well, the cultural differences are stark.
In many respects I found this rather a strange book. It left me quite baffled. I felt that a lot of questions were unanswered about Karina and, whilst I can appreciate that her enigmatic quality is part of the fascination, I found it frustrating. She comes across as quite loathsome and grotesque, but you can never quite work out why she is the way she is.
Another problem I had concerned Carmel's eating disorder. It was never adequately explained. At times the author seemed to be suggesting that Carmel couldn't afford to buy food, or that the food in the university canteen was just so gross that she didn't want to eat it, but at other times there seemed a deeper explanation, which was never made clear. Throughout the book food seems to be used as a metaphor. A metaphor for what, though? I couldn't work it out. When Carmel arrives at university she feels uprooted - from her working class town, her family and her faith. This impacts on her sense of identity. I can only think that perhaps her eating disorder is a symbol of self-denial in general, a product perhaps of her Catholic upbringing. Carmel tells us that this book is a story about "appetite in its many aspects" and a lot of attention is given to descriptions of food and the way different characters eat. On the one hand we have Carmel who barely eats at all; on the other we have Karina, who is a complete glutton. I still can't understand the metaphor at all.
Another thing I didn't understand was the title. It might have been more apt to call it 'An Experiment in Life' because there isn't much love in it, from what I can tell. (Unless I am being a bit dense and missing something here!) I can understand the 'experiment' reference, because it is about someone having to adjust to a new life, after living at home with their parents, and the inevitable stresses and changes that brings. I don't know where the 'love' bit comes from.
On a more positive note, I loved the character of Carmel's spirited mother, the way she wanted her daughter to escape the constraints of her social class. I laughed at her obsession with Oxbridge, and Carmel's view that her mother thought Oxbridge was an actual place - "Oxford or Cambridge would not be good enough, only Oxbridge would be good enough for a daughter of hers." I also loved Hilary Mantel's elegant writing style and clever use of imagery. I note that she uses sexual imagery to great effect, which shows the preoccupation of the women, who are always coming up with new ways to smuggle their boyfriends into their rooms. There is a humorous description of Carmel buying cheap tights from the student union shop and finding that they lose their shape when washed, ending up "dangling obscenely" from radiators and looking "like the foreskins of giants." Similarly, the canteen roast parsnips are described as 'ogres' penises.'
Would I recommend this book?
Not sure. I do feel it explores some interesting themes and the characterisation is strong. It may just be me who didn't quite 'get' the ending or the significance of the title. Perhaps I am trying to read more into it than I should. It was certainly thought-provoking and, although it left me wanting a few more pages of explanation at the end, I can't say I didn't enjoy reading it. I am interested in anything set in the early 1970s and I love to read about the lives of women in the early years of feminism. If you want something with a bit of depth, as opposed to chick lit, this may be worth a read. If you like 'coming of age' stories, you will probably find Carmel's account an interesting one. You can buy it new from Amazon sellers for as little as £0.01, so it's probably worth trying at that price!