Carmel grows up in the North in poor circumstances. With a lot of hard work she makes it to Tonbridge Hall which is a Hall of Residence in London for university students, where the food is vile and pushes our heroine down an anorexic slide. Here she meets girls from a different class, ‘the Sophies’, Mantel calls them. Carmel wanted high marks but all around her there were girls like herself who “… wanted homes. Houses of our own. Babies, even: the milky drool of of saliva to replace the smooth flow of ink. We did not speak of it, but each corridor of Tonbridge Hall seethed with fertility-panic.” Young women experimenting with and experiencing new situations and unsure of what way they are supposed to be.
The novel is set in the late 1960s, early 1970s, and the time is accurately evoked and acutely observed. It was a year after Chappaquiddick, in June the Tories got in (“It wasn’t my fault; I wasn’t old enough to vote”), in July there was a dock strike and The Minister of Agriculture announced that housewives should shop around and “buy those things that are cheaper”. When Carmel’s mother heard this she threw her slipper at the television set and said “What goes he think folk generally do? Go down the market and say ‘What’s dear today, give me two pounds, will you, and a slice of your best caviare on top?
Mantel is a brilliant writer who can manage serious matters with a comedic tone. Helen Dunmore, writing in The Observer, call it “a bleak tale seamed with crackling wit” which about sums it up.