By the time I read Hilary Mantel’s 1996 review of Kate Atkinson’s debut novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum in the London Review of Books, the novel had been a favorite of mine for over a decade. My mother gave me the book when I was in high school—both of us entirely unaware of the “controversy” that surrounded Atkinson’s Whitbread (now Costa) Book of the Year Prize win—and I read it so many times that it eventually broke into three pieces (which I continued read). The controversy, which Mantel lay out in her piece’s opening, was that Atkinson—a 44-year-old debut novelist, and a woman, a divorced woman with who children, who occasionally made money cleaning hotel rooms—had won at all, instead of Salman Rushdie, for The Moor’s Last Sigh.
Today, after learning of Hilary Mantel’s death, I revisited her review, and was struck again by its funny, acid, generous brilliance, both as a piece of literary criticism, and as a piece of harsh, entirely deserved criticism of literary culture. Not only its rampant sexism and classism (“Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Salman Rushdie—and we know nothing of his manicure.”) but also its unwillingness to enjoy itself.
Reviewers are paid to read books, and they often feel guilty about it – lolling before the gas-fire, as they do, sultans of syntax, while their less fortunate contemporaries are out braving the sleet and the IRA
“What, page 100 reached and nothing done?” she writes. “Nothing to say, except ‘I am really enjoying myself’?” As a lover of enjoyable books who occasionally feels ashamed by my interest in being entertained by what I read, this is the kind of passage that makes me want to whoop. How lucky we are that Mantel has left us not only so many brilliant, enjoyable books, but so much brilliant, enjoyable criticism, too.