by Hilary Mantel
Viking 1995, Holt 1997, Picador 2007
Reviewed by Seana Graham
Having long been a fan of Mantel’s historical novels such as Wolf Hall and the earlier Places of Greater Safety, I was drawn to pick up this slimmer volume recently, which, while not autobiographical, uses elements of the author’s own early milieu. Given that the college portion of the story takes place the year after Chappaquiddick, I half expected the “experiment” of the title to be of a sexual and perhaps even psychedelic nature, but though the sexual revolution does permeate the tale, in one sense it has already happened. By the time young Carmel McBain leaves her small northern English mill town to seek her (academic) fortune in London, she and her peers are well versed in matters sexual, and Carmel even has a steady if temporarily long distance boyfriend.
The story is framed by a time when the older and more seasoned Carmel comes across a newspaper photo of her childhood friend Julianne, now Julia, which sends her back in memory to not one but two earlier eras, and in fact, not just her friendship with Julianne but to an even more primordial one with Karina, whom she has known since preschool. Neither girl is quite the friend you’d want if you had your druthers, but their by no means assured climb out of a small and dying industrial town all but guarantees that the trio will be traveling together for some time to come.
It’s a journey that no one except their parents really expects either Karina or Carmel to make (Julianne coming from a different social strata). Although the nuns in their Catholic grade school speak of the more prestigious Holy Redeemer in hushed and reverent tones, no one from Carmel’s school is expected to get in or, really, to even try to. So begins a ferocious struggle on Carmel’s part, goaded on as she is by her mother to defy such expectations. Her mother shows her a particularly dour form of love, perhaps exemplified best in their nightly hair curling ritual.
“…she gets out the curl rags. These are white ropes of cloth. She unrolls and separates them, then picks up the comb again and divides my hair into strands. At the top of each strand she knots a rope. Then round and round we go, tighter and tighter wrapping, myself delirious with pain and rage, and she with set face, mummifying my hair. I cry out that I want my hair cut off, short like other people’s and pinned back with a big black kirby grip or a pink plastic slide, and she utters from between her teeth that I don’t know what I want.”
It is only perhaps in looking over this story a second time that I realize how much it’s about hunger in all its many forms. The article about Julia which opens the book reveals that she has become a psychotherapist specializing in the eating disorders of the rich and famous. And food in this book comes in portions either too small or too large. It isn’t usually of a particularly attractive variety either. It ties in, though, with hungers of another type. After finding something wanting in the boyfriends the girls in her resident hall have chosen, Carmel thinks,
“What was the matter with them, the girls who lived with me on C Floor? Did they think these were the only men they could get? Inferiority was working away inside these girls, guilt at being so clever, wanting so much, taking so much from the world. If they were to have a man as well, it seemed to them right that he should be a very poor specimen.”
But Carmel turns out to be a bit of a privation artist herself.
Looking over some reviews and comments about this book, I was a bit surprised that some people who had read the book still found the meaning of the title somewhat elusive. Surprised, because Mantel spells it out pretty clearly right there on page 197. It doesn’t give any plot points away, so I will quote it here.
“It occurred to me that perhaps I was the subject of an experiment, an experiment, let us say, in love; that I lived my life under Julianne’s gaze, undergoing certain trials for her so that she would not have to undergo them herself. But how are our certainties forged, except by the sweat and tears of other people? If your parents don’t teach you how to live, you learn it from books; and clever people watch you, to learn from your mistakes.”
If you’ve read Wolf Hall, the spareness and easy readability of this novel may be deceptive. There is more to it than first meets the eye.