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?Reuse content