Not just a pretty mind

Book:AN EXPERIMENT IN LOVE by Hilary Mantel, Viking £15
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HERE is a novel with all the old-fashioned virtues, for good and for ill. A female Bildungsroman, it traces a good Catholic girl from Lancashire, Carmel McCabe, to London, to the marvels and mysteries of higher education, and to Tonbridge Hall, a hostel full of similar young hopefuls. In these narrow rooms, which "recalled the felon's accommodation, maintained at public expense, in some enlightened Scandinavian prison", unwinds a collective drama that focuses on swellings and thinnings, eating and starving, celibacy, sex and thwarted pregnancy.

In its atmosphere of teddy bears and wet jumpers draped on radiators, boyfriend gossip and agonies over toast, vivid memories of fuggy form- rooms and dry homes left behind like empty chrysalises, this is almost a sort of grown-up Fifth Form at St Augusta's. But now the games are played in deadly earnest. In the communal laundry-room, half a dozen girls toil at ironing boards: "What were they ironing? Party dresses? Not at all. Shirts. Men's shirts.... Pressing the cuffs, easing and turning, finally lifting the garment with a flourish, high into the air like a flag: a banner that told the whole world that I, a Tonbridge Hall girl, have got my man. I'm not just a pretty brain, you see; not just a pretty brain."

These crisped collars are not only badges of success and possession, but the tokens of fertility-panic. Mantel is clever at evoking the ambivalence of late teens, the dread of pregnancy and the simultaneous craving of it. And Carmel, watching her medical student room-mate ministering to a friend returned from the abortion clinic, and realising that she knows much more about it than she would have learnt at lectures, states: "It is a depressing fact about the women of my generation: name them a year, ask them the fee for an abortion, and they'll be able to tell you. And if they don't know, it's because they repress and refuse the memory; you may be sure they knew at the time."

Meanwhile, Carmel herself gradually fades, literally, before our eyes. She is a likeable heroine, improved by a few shafts of enjoyable malice, but Mantel only narrowly avoids losing her character into the dull flats of an anorexic case-study. As this readable but strangely predictable book reaches its melodramatic climax, we want the author to surprise us somehow - perhaps, even, with a little caustic optimism about the female condition. Just a little?