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BOOK REVIEW : Virgins in sensible shoes

AN EXPERIMENT IN LOVE Hilary Mantel Viking £15
Some girls are born lucky. "We," they say, "are plump of knee and mild of eye, we are douce, blithe and glib: we inherit the semi while others inherit the wind." Their homes are in the warm and comforting south. Carmel, the narrator of this novel, has a grittier, far less positive background. The streets of her town are "lined with brick-built terraces, interrupted by corner-shops which give no credit; by public houses in which people say they never set foot; by sooty Nonconformist churches whose attendance dwindled."

In the early Seventies, aged 18, girls gather for their first term at London University. They are crammed into a hall of residence whose narrow rooms are compared to a felon's accommodation, maintained at public expense in some enlightened Scandinavian prison. Their wet jumpers, grey and hairy like gutted wolves, hang steaming over radiators. Fed minimally on uncleaned- aquarium soup, they share the fears and ambitions of their lives in an atmosphere of "bathwater and parsnips, talc and blood." In this fetid, tribal sisterhood they discover what it is to love each other - furiously, anxiously, compassionately.

It is exactly the kind of set-up we might expect from a first novel. Ah, we might say knowingly, here we have thinly- disguised autobiography, a rite-of-passage to be endured by every young ambitious writer and her audience. But we would be wrong. Hilary Mantel is an established and dazzlingly competent writer whose every novel is startingly different from its predecessors. Though this, her seventh, is about how hard it can be to grow up, the manner of its execution displays the authority and flair of a profoundly original story-teller in full command of her material.

Carmel is the only product of a pretty grim marriage. Her mother is "quarrelsome, dogmatic and shrewd" (Mantel's trios of rhythmic adjectives are reliably instructive, incisive and apt). Feverishly and embarrassingly, she embroiders gambolling lambs on her daughter's school frock, with large and calloused hands, "made to hold a rifle, not a needle." Her father is feeble, devoted to jigsaw puzzles and assuring her that if ever she's in trouble she cannot count on him. In class, she sits next to the baleful Karina, mainly because "odd as my outfit would be, Karina would be wearing something odder."

These two get scholarships to a convent - not the Antonia White school of sadistic pietism, but a place smelling of incense and custard, where girls are taught to develop social consciences: a training-ground not for life's officers, says Mantel with deadly accuracy, but for its foolish volunteers. They are urged to yearn for thick tights, stout shoes, bulging briefcases. But steadily and insidiously their lives diverge from the apparent reality; faith and virginity are quietly lost. And together they both progress to London, locked in that bitter friendship that the shameful secrets of a shared childhood confer even on enemies.

The narrative drive of the novel accelerates steadily towards the end. Food, sex and appearances become dominant. Carmel's anorexia creeps up on us, as it does on her: only when she collapses on the stairs does the silver thread of its snaky progress into her soul gleam back into the petty meanness of her beginnings. We remember that her mother's idea of cooking was to slap corned beef on a plate and quarter a tomato; we remember the stolid grossness of Karina's greed; we are sobered by Carmel's suppressed despair at losing her lover, by the poverty of her life. Around her dwindling figure, her companions iron their boyfriends' shirts and worry about pregnancy, seething with fertility-panic. The melodrama of the last few pages becomes inevitable.

Funny, tragic and wonderfully perceptive, this is a book to be treasured, for the sheer quality of its writing and for its honesty. William Wordsworth may have declared that to be young was very heaven, but we all know he was forgetting the bad bits. Hilary Mantel does not: "You're only young once, they say, but doesn't it go on a long time? More years than you can bear."