An Experiment in Love by Hilary Mantel, Penguin pounds 5.99. In the early Seventies, Mantel's narrator Carmel arrives at her tightly-controlled student residence, where the girls' concentration is continually upset either by love-hunger or its substitutes. The warden may preach the life of the mind, but the girls' bodies keep getting in the way, as they agonise over appearance, diet, love-letters, virginity, the smuggling of boyfriends in and out, contraception, abortion. Mantel's Hawthornden prizewinner succeeds because it meets the most daunting challenge open to a novelist - that of making the mundane intensely involving and moving.
Christina Rossetti: A Literary Biography by Jan Marsh, Pimlico pounds 14. Given her association with the arty bohemianism of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Christina Rossetti cuts a figure of surprising submission to the Victorian code of femininity. After a happy, Italianate childhood in London, her adolescence was shadowed by an outbreak of hysterical morbidity, exposure to hell-fire High Anglicanism and (as Jan Marsh suggests but cannot prove) her father's sexual abuse. Later she declined into a long spinsterhood, dressing 20 years behind the times and writing austere religious poems (but also prose fantasies inspired by Lewis Carroll). As Marsh reads it, this was a life clothed in bombazine and choked with rectitude: "In the bleak midwinter" indeed.
River Out of Eden by Richard Dawkins, Phoenix pounds 5.99. In this latest update on the theory of evolution, Dawkins remains the evangelical atheist who made his first appearance in The Selfish Gene. "We humans have purpose on the brain," he thunders, holding up Darwin's Holy Writ as if to knock the teleology out of us with one blow to the head. Why, he asks, can we not "admit that things might be simply callous, lacking all purpose"? When elucidating natural processes, Dawkins's prose is neutral. But getting hold of his bugbear, Religion, and dragging it by the ear before the congregation, his style changes, becoming rhythmic, rhetorical and - okay I'll say it - biblical in its elevated scorn.
Dear George by Helen Simpson, Minerva pounds 5.99. The characters in these stories are above the crudities and banalities of daily life and, worse, horrifying physical processes such as birth ("stirrup splay and bloody debouchement" as one character thinks of it). A man in rapid retreat from the girl he'd hoped to seduce notes with a shudder "the newly-gathered fleece of plaque at the junction of her teeth and gums". A pregnant woman's sickness is "shooting acrid slop up to her epiglottis". In other cases, it's the linguistic secretions that revolt, as in the 15-year-old whose boyfriend, "Everytime We Say Goodbye", can only say "Chiz". If ever Simpson properly unleashed this loathing, Swift might look to his laurels. Meanwhile, she remains funny and acute.
The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, Vintage pounds 6.99. These memoirs, told with remarkable skill, concern a young Scottish post-office engineer who was shipped to the other side of the Empire in WWII into brutal Japanese imprisonment. His account of beatings and tortures makes painful reading, yet from what he says of the emotional block that he suffered on his return, it must have been ten times tougher to write. At the end, after tracing and confronting one of his torturers, Lomax achieves a sort of reconciliation. This is a worthy winner of the 1996 NCR non-fiction prize.
Plain Girl by Arthur Miller, Minerva pounds 4.99. This is a 76-page novella, but there is so much here. It tells the life story of Janice, a Jewish New Yorker who's known ever since childhood that she is homely but learns at last not to care. It also deals with the Depression, Communism and the trauma of war. The men around Janice might be cast in one of Miller's plays: the property developer brother, the communist husband who goes to war, the would-be film star who is her one-night-stand. But the centre of wisdom in the story is Charles, a blind musician and her second husband. He teaches her to live in the present and let the future pursue its own concerns. We are verging on thematic cliches here, but Miller's prose is precise and elegant and the dialogue brilliant.Reuse content