Monday, 26 January 2015

An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel

review by Maryom

It's 1970 and Carmel McBain is off to start a new life for herself, leaving behind her northern mill-town home and heading for London and university. Free from the constraints of the family home and filled with a wonderful sense of opportunity, Carmel embraces her new life with enthusiasm but her childhood isn't that easily abandoned as two of her school friends end up in the same hall-of-residence; Julianne with her string of boyfriends and Karina with her down to earth practicality and enormous appetite. They and the other students at Tonbridge Hall soon find that life isn't as easy as they'd expected and as with so many coming of age stories, there's heartache, disappointment and a brush with tragedy to be encountered along the way.

Mention Hilary Mantel and most people will immediately think of her long historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies ,so it might come as a surprise to know she's also written shorter, more contemporary novels. I first discovered them a couple of years ago with Fludd and An Experiment In Love has been sitting waiting on my TBR pile for frankly too long. What all these books share is the slipping inside another mind-set, the sharing of another person's outlook on life, whether that be an important historical figure like Thomas Cromwell or a fictitious 18 year old such as Carmel.

Instead of the intrigues of the Tudor court, here the reader is introduced to the behind the scenes secrets of a university hall of residence; with just as many hidden agendas and deceptions - from stretching the meagre grant and all-night studying, to boyfriends, unwanted pregnancies, eating disorders and quick-burn resentments.

In style and length it's reminiscent of Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and Fran├žoise Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse; a bitter-sweet, first person narrative of the lives of young women on the cusp between child and adult, at a time of life so full of possibilities, but which could easily tip into tragedy.

If you've loved Wolf Hall, or been daunted by its sheer scale, don't miss this. At a personal level I found this to be an unexpected trip down memory lane; although I'm several years younger than the character of Carmel, her childhood echoed mine and brought back things I'd long forgotten from the strange headgear of boys in the early '60s to comics with stories that gripped me.

Is it an adult novel or young adult? Well, in the time it's set, back before YA existed, I'd have read it as a teenager - and Carmel probably would have done too! One for all ages over 16.

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher -
Fourth Estate
Genre - YA/adult fiction

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