I liked this book, but that almost feels like damning it with faint praise. With everyone raving about Wolf Hall, her Booker prize winner, I guess I was expecting something startling. It is engaging and well written, but the story is rather ordinary. It feels rather a well used device to tell a story by scattering pieces of the past through the ongoing story of the current situation, I have certainly encountered it before.
Carmel is going off to university and the story relates her first year, and also the background of her friendships and how she came to get there. She comes from a somewhat cliched catholic background, an only child with distant but self-sacrificing parents, particularly her mother who seems to be living vicariously through her daughter. You don't get any kind of feminist 'girls can do anything they want' message, it is more a determined desperation on the mother's part, to lift her daughter out of the poverty she has experienced. Her mother also enforces her friendship with Karina, who seems to embody everything she approves of. Together they plod through primary school and sit for scholarships to the aspirational 'Holy Redeemer' secondary school. The place is plainly out of their league and it is their outsider status there that continues to bind them together in the face of middle class indifference. They don't appear to like each other much, are just friends by force of circumstance, in fact Carmel frequently appears to despise Karina, mainly for her nasty habit of belittling everything that she values. Her friendship with Julianne develops through her teenage years, but instead of leaving Karina behind they seem to remain bound together by their shared history.
Her mother is an obsessive knitter and sewer, and creates an amazing wardrobe for Carmel, bestrewn with frilly collars and embroidered flowers. She is surprisingly unselfconscious and I suppose, like most young children, totally accepting of all that passes for 'parenting' and submits herself unprotesting to her mother's plans. Her mother remains the defining force of her childhood, right up to the point where she leaves home. This description of her is just perfect:
"Her hair was greying and wild and held back by springing kirby grips. When she frowned, a cloud passed over the street. When she raised her eyebrows - as she often did, amazed each hour by what God expected her to endure - a small town's tram system sprang upon her forehead. She was quarrelsome, dogmatic and shrewd; her speech was alarmingly forthright, or else bewilderingly circumlocutory. ... When she laughed I seldom knew why, and when she cried I was no wiser. Her hands were large and knuckly and calloused, made to hold a rifle not a needle." (p.9-10)
The school environment is very controlling. The description of them going to buy uniform reminded me of a conversation I once had with a teacher at school, where she described having to kneel down to have the length of her school skirt checked, it had to touch the floor exactly, not an inch too short or too long. I think that in comparison having the Head Teacher moan at me all through sixth form for wearing my duffel coat round school doesn't seem so harsh. Then suddenly Carmel discovers rebellion, and I loved this incident so much (reminds me that of course schools only function by the compliance of children, if they chose to say No occasionally it would be complete anarchy):
"The next time Sister Basil asked me a stupid question, I didn't answer her. I just folded my arms and looked back sadly. She was a small nun, old, who looked as if a cobweb had been draped over her face. 'Come on, come on,' she said. 'Either you know or you don't know, which is it?' I passed my eyes over her. Suddenly she came to life, spitting and dancing like a cat. Two red spots grew on her grey cheeks. She propped up the lid of her desk with one arm while the other hand rummaged around for her cane. She stood over me and shouted that I would be caned for dumb insolence. I looked back, sadder. There was really no chance of her caning me because I would not hold out my hand when she asked me; I had made a decision on this. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Karina watching me. Her big pink face had turned white." (p.54)
But then they go away to university and appear to choose a hall of residence that is almost more restrictive than the school. It is almost as if they are still scared of the outside world. Shared flats and bedsits are viewed with both fear and derision. The hall offers the comforts of home, with parental figures to impose the regulations, that the girls relish finding way to circumvent. The hall is full of girls, who Carmel refers to simply as Sophy, she views them as a homogenous mass with the same concerns and preoccupations. This felt slightly misogynistic, except she also refers to their boyfriends universally as Roger, who are a real sorry bunch. "What was the matter with them, the girls who lived with me on C Floor? Did they think these were the only men they could get? Inferiority was working away inside these girls, guilt at being so clever, wanting so much, taking so much from the world. If they were to have a man as well it seemed to them right that he should be a very poor specimen." (p. 75)
Carmel's concerns however remain money and food. She has only a tiny grant, mostly swallowed up by hall fees and her parents appear to have just left her to struggle. She is surrounded by her more affluent peers who go out and enjoy life, while she sits and studies, since she discovers that this does not cost money. The meagre meals supplied by the hall barely hold body and soul together, but her expenditure on food is the only means of control that she has and so it is the food bill that gets cut when other needs arise. The book claims to be about their experiments in life and love but in reality there seems very little of either. You see absolutely nothing of their university life outside the hall of residence. Carmel has a boyfriend, Niall, from home, with whom she exchanges obsessively long letters. Julianne seems to have a string of casual affairs, but all of it occurs 'off-screen' and you know nothing about any of them. And Karina is reduced to someone who they pass in the corridor occasionally. Julianne returns after a weekend away, having patently had an abortion, but Carmel is so wrapped up in her own problems that she fails to notice her friend's distress. They discover Sue is pregnant when she throws up on the letter in which Niall breaks up with Carmel, and her heartbreak has to take second place to the friends rallying round to help her decide what to do (her Roger is a complete looser of course and runs off).
And to top it all off suddenly they have to go buy a new wardrobe: "The first, simplest thing was that the minskirt fell totally and decisively out of favour. For some months the fashion had been on the wane, but that October a few of the old guard were out on the streets; by November, the maxi-skirt had won, and there was not a knee to be seen between Heathrow and the Essex coast." (p.153) With all the talk of contraception, age of the Pill and the new abortion law, the young women of 1970 were still victims of fashion. Poor Carmel has no money and has to struggle on with the clothes she owns, lusting after, throughout the book, a fox fur coat owned by Karina's room mate Lynette.
The tragic ending is almost too symbolic and felt a bit like another over-used device. I guess the book is mostly saying that certain points in your life can become defining moments by accident, but there was not enough information about where the characters went next to help you decide if it was so important. Between 1970 and when I went to polytechnic in 1982 I certainly think a great many things changed. I think women's expectations and experience changed enormously. I certainly never felt guilty for wanting more, or that I had to be grateful that as a woman I was permitted these opportunities. It is a worthwhile read if only for that, to reflect on progress and be glad.