Pick of the Geek – An Experiment in Love

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Hilary Mantel’s biggest strength as a novelist is her ability to embrace contradictions, so it’s hard to say anything about one of her books without noting that it could easily be seen the other way. Her historical novels have the settings and page counts of vast epics, but frequently return to small, personal observations, while this 1995 novel deals with huge, important issues without crushing its small, intimate central story under their weight. Her heroine, Carmel, is on the run from the life of charity, faith and self-denial she feels her parents and background have been pointing her towards; she ends up developing anorexia, a condition the novel implies is almost a secular form of hairshirt-wearing, asceticism for the modern religions of keeping up with fashion, finding a man and fitting into consumer society. Mantel always assumes her readers are clever enough to tie these ends, though. Rather than preach, she gives us the ingredients and leaves us to figure them out for ourselves, distracting us with her usual virtues of brilliantly sketched-in character relationships and the typical wit and eloquence of her protagonist. Few accounts of Catholic guilt are rawer and funnier than Carmel’s account of using contraception for the first time and tormenting herself imagining what all those sperm she’s wasted could have grown up to be. As with Fludd and Beyond Black, Mantel shows how even quiet, provincial lives are affected by the huge upheavals of social history, and Carmel’s story speaks so eloquently of a time when the hedonistic optimism of the 1960s was fading, yet the conservative revival of the 1980s still felt unthinkable. It’s also another in her series of acute, heartbreaking novels about women’s relationships with their bodies and their destinies.

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