An angry novel by Mantel (A Place of Greater Safety, 1993, etc.), offers a powerful, but incomplete, portrait of a young woman driving herself toward destruction. Narrator Carmel McBain traces her crabbed, anxious life from childhood in Lancashire up to college in London in the 1960's. Her parents are Irish immigrants, her father affable and distant, her mother furious, accusatory, manipulative. She relentlessly prods her daughter to succeed, and Carmel, intelligent and pliable, does: She wins a place in a posh convent school and eventually a scholarship to London. Meanwhile, Katrina, the stolid, bright, cruel daughter of a neighbor, shadows Carmel's life, always competing with her, following her first to the convent school and then to London. And Julia, Carmel's friend and roommate at the university, is elegant, insouciant, at 18 already juggling a series of well-heeled boyfriends. Mantel's portrait of these girls, and more generally of the lives of young women in the unsettled `60's, is sharp and convincing: Their brittle, witty talk, their struggle to fight for true careers, their difficulty navigating a new world of sexual possibilities, are all rendered here in vivid detail. And the self-hating Carmel's quiet descent into anorexia is traced with almost clinical exactitude. There's a much-foreshadowed climactic scene in which Carmel's dormitory burns down and Lysette, Katrina's roommate, dies. (Carmel suspects that the ever-envious and angry Katrina locked her in their room before fleeing.) Then, rather bafflingly, there's a perfunctory final chapter in which a much- older Carmel, cured of her anorexia and married, looks back on these events. We never learn how she came to grips with her furies, though, or even what has happened to the loathsome Katrina. It may be that Mantel wants to suggest that such things don't matter because so little has changed: Women are still without much true authority. Still, without some conclusive image, we're left guessing about the greater meanings behind this grim, profoundly moving work.

Pub Date: May 1, 1996

ISBN: 0-8050-4427-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1996

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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