Feeds:
Posts
Comments

fourfrightenedpeople

It can be unnerving starting to read a book knowing a number of other people really didn’t like it at all. I plucked Four Frightened People off the shelf – not even sure where I had got it – intrigued by the title and the blurb, I think it was one my sister found me in a charity shop, alerted to it by the dark green Virago spine. A few pages in and I discovered it was referred to as ‘that book’ by members of the Librarything Virago group – whose opinion I trust. My heart sank. I had started a dud; the trouble was I couldn’t put it down. Well I suppose by now we are all very well aware of how opinions on books can differ greatly, and Four Frightened People is a case in point. Although I do understand why some people dislike it and there were elements which made me uncomfortable, I enjoyed it a lot.

Four Frightened People propelled its author E. Arnot Robertson to literary fame in the early 1930’s- she had already enjoyed some success with her previous novels, but it was this novel that was highly acclaimed and re-printed numerous times. I can see why it was such a bestseller.

Judy Corder a no-nonsense, twenty-six year doctor, recovering from a broken love affair, is travelling with her cousin Stewart on a slow ship to Singapore. The heat is almost unbearable, 107◦ in the shade, and there is no shade, and here these two now cynical, old childhood playmates are incarcerated with their fellow passengers who include the slightly pompous Arnold Ainger – a married civil servant, and linguist and Mrs Mardick a hearty, managing woman, whose persistent good cheer and garrulousness soon sets all their teeth on edge. Furtive activity under cover of darkness among the Chinese crewmen alert Judy and Arnold to the danger on board – plague has broken out, and the terrified crew are already disposing of the bodies out of sight of their western passengers. Judy has selfishly hidden her profession from her fellow passengers – doesn’t want to have to hand out free medical advice – nice girl!
Judy, Arnold and Stewart hit upon the idea of leaving the ship at the next port and then travel over land on foot through the Malay jungle to Kintaling from where they can secure safer passage back to England. Stupidly Judy dresses for the jungle in silk stocking and some kind of flimsy sounding shoes – which she soon has cause to regret. At the moment of departure they find they must take Mrs Mardick with them, whose cool acceptance of the situation is almost unnerving.

“…after we had watched the ship sail, a thing of such beauty in the night, jewelled with tiers of light, that it was hard to believe that she carried the pollution and wretchedness we knew to be aboard. She was not far from us, but before we heard the rattle of the cabl;e coming home we saw the phosphorescence, a thin ghost of fire, a milky radiance just discernible against the black water at that distance, light faintly under her stern and drip from the stem as the anchor came up. I have never seen this living gleam in the water in the water, before or since, as brilliant as it was that night.”

Once on land things never ever get any easier. Their proposed journey of a few days – turns into weeks, weeks of adventure and peril in an inhospitable environment. They hire – ‘a guide’ Deotlan who is later joined by his former lover Wan Nau, Deotlan is part Malay, part European, his English is passable, his knowledge of the Malay jungle only slightly better than that of his clients, he is staunchly proud of his European heritage, although this has left him somewhat isolated from both communities.

Here, deep in the Malay jungle, civilisation has been abandoned to an extent, and the true natures of each of the group are brought to the fore. In the midst of their trek, they encounter wild animals, sickness, hunger, and come to make some shocking decisions which impact on others in the group. Judy recognises and ruminates on her own sexual desires, especially as they may relate to the two men who are her companions. Judy can appear arrogant, at first I found her cool, and not very likeable – but I warmed to her as the novel progressed. She is in many ways a modern woman, she knows what she wants, she’s intelligent and she is certainly unlike many female characters of this period, she chooses her own lover, and accepts the likely transitory nature of their relationship.

Which all brings me to the many reasons that a lot of people won’t like this book – and I acknowledge they are very real reasons – I’m not even sure why I didn’t react differently to the book than I did. Firstly – and one of the most unlikeable things about the book is what I can only call its racism. I have read many books of this period – and whenever there are western people in a non-European setting I know to take a deep breath and expect the inherent racism that was an everyday accepted thing at this time. That such language is so prevalent in 1930’s literature tells us a lot about the society in which it was written, however it remains uncomfortable for us today, and it was the one thing in this book that I disliked strongly. There is a definite, and unpalatable feeling in this novel that westerners are superior in all things to the poor stupid Malay people – which is deeply offensive – and would usually be enough to make me dislike a book intensely. However there was so much of the adventure and the interplay between these characters that fascinated me that I really did have a job putting it down. Another criticism seems to have been that characters are unlikeable – I found Judy improved as things went along – and although I quite liked Stewart I was constantly irritated by him, I rather liked Arnold, and Mrs Mardick is well drawn and not as unlikeable as she is probably supposed to be. I wanted to know Deotlan and Wan Nau more than I was allowed to – they were infinitely more interesting to me.

There is a slight sense at times that Robertson was out to shock a little, certainly she never romanticises trekking through the jungle – things do get realistically dirty and unpleasant, although even Robertson shies away from any details of how Judy manages the period she blithely informs the reader Judy feels coming on. So there is a little bit of ickiness, and pages and pages of trudging through jungle, really why did I like this book? And yet I did. The one section of the novel that jarred perhaps was the end – which just seemed a little off kilter with the erotic, malevolence and survival of the fittest nature of what had come before.

This is certainly not a faultless book, I am rather surprised I enjoyed it at all, but I did so while recognising its faults and considering it as a social document for the times in which it was written it is interesting. It also happens to be very well written, but this is not a novel for everyone, that much is clear.

earnottrobertson

virginiawoolfI think I have mentioned once or twice before that I have had a somewhat difficult relationship with Virginia Woolf. I always feel she is a writer I should love; I am rather envious of those who already love her work, and are more familiar with it than I am. Considering the numbers of twentieth century women writers I read, it seems slightly ridiculous that Virginia Woolf and I have been such strangers.

Years ago – I may have been about twenty, I read To the Lighthouse – I quite obviously wasn’t ready for Virginia Woolf at that time, and I think I spoiled her work for myself for a long time because of that experience, I didn’t hate the book, but I found it tough going and a little impenetrable at times. Funnily enough I can remember the beginning of To the Lighthouse quite well even after all these years – so much so, I really want to revisit the novel one day soon.

Then possibly about ten or twelve years ago I saw the film The Hours starring Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman and Julianne Moore. It is about the connected lives of three different women, all of them connected by the book Mrs Dalloway, one of the women is Virginia Woolf herself – I loved the film, and immediately read the novel, on which the film is based, by Michael Cunningham (I generally do that the other way around) I loved the book too (the film was very faithful to the novel I am glad to say) and it made me wish that I knew Virginia Woolf’s work rather better. I was determined to read Mrs Dalloway – and eventually I did in about 2006 and liked it, but I wasn’t blown away in the way I so wanted to be.

Quite recently I read Orlando for one of my book groups – I was delighted to have a perfect excuse for tackling one of Virginia Woolf’s best known novels. I was amazed how much I loved Orlando, I found it wonderfully readable – and all except for the last fifty pages or so I didn’t find it anything like as impenetrable as I had been expecting. So fresh from my success with Orlando I am ready to really get down to more Virginia Woolf – try to get to grips with her and maybe begin finally to understand the woman that she was.

thevoyageout1

the voyage outBy chance I happened to see a tweet the other day – announcing a Virginia Woolf read-a-long – starting this Thursday (yes tomorrow). Luckily Virginia Woolf novels are available free on kindle – so I was able to download The Voyage Out – Virginia Woolf’s first novel immediately, ready to start reading at the end of this week. Blogger O at Behold the stars is one of several bloggers who are taking part in the read-a-long of Woolf’s first novel – I am a little nervous, I have no expectations at all about this novel, I don’t think I have ever heard anything about it before. I found this quote from the novel – it struck a chord.

“We’re all in the dark. We try to find out, but can you imagine anything more ludicrous than one person’s opinion of another person? One goes along thinking one knows; but one really doesn’t know”

I also have To the Lighthouse and Night and Day on my kindle and have read some fascinating reviews lately of some of Virginia Woolf’s essays which I really do fancy – so maybe – I will at long last reach some kind of an understanding with Virginia Woolf. I shall of course keep you informed as to how I get on.

frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel was chosen by one of my book groups for our March ‘banned books’ theme (it was banned for a time by the Apartheid government in South Africa). I’m not actually certain how many times I have read Frankenstein – in a sense it doesn’t matter – probably four, possibly five. I still love it; after almost two hundred years, the novel still remains very readable.

“You are my creator, but I am your master; Obey!”

Of course now the story of Frankenstein has become almost myth like, people refer laughingly of having created a monster, and like any myth the story can’t really be believed, I don’t think that matters. Frankenstein is about our deepest fears, written at a time when religion and science were often at odds, and the possibilities that science held was no doubt treated with a degree of suspicion.

Mary Shelley conceived the idea of Frankenstein while travelling in Geneva with her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and others in 1814, she was just eighteen. There is a famous story behind the story which I talked about in a previous post. The novel appeared anonymously at first in 1818, only appearing under Mary Shelley’s own name for the first time in France in 1823. It is possible I think to hear the voice of that young girl of 1814 in many of the ravings and pleadings of both Victor Frankenstein and his creation, that boiling sense of injustice we so often feel at that age is ever present.

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be his world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.”

Like many novels of about this period – Frankenstein has an epistolary form, although the majority of the novel is one long narrative – which Robert Walton – whose letters open the novel – sends on to his sister for her entertainment. Walton is the Captain of a ship on an expedition to the North Pole, one day he spots a gigantic figure, hurtling across the ice on a sled. Later he and his men rescue an exhausted, emaciated Victor Frankenstein from the frozen waters, around their ship, whose pursuit of the figure Walton spotted, has led him to this isolated landscape. Walton becomes great friends with Victor, who is a dreadfully haunted man, his life destroyed – he tells Robert his story.

frankenstein2Victor Frankenstein was born into a wealthy Geneva family, he is encouraged to study science and explore the natural wonders of the world. When Victor is a young boy, his family adopt the daughter of his father’s greatest friend, Elizabeth who grows up with Victor and with whom he later falls in love. Having spent much time studying ancient scientific texts – that other scientists have long since abandoned, Victor pursues the creation of life itself – breathing life into non-living matter. He uses body parts – to create a being of absolute perfection as he conceives it. What he eventually creates is quite simply a monster- the being he creates; a living, breathing sentient creature is miles away from the dream he had, a hideous, gigantic monster, mute, and terrifying, and from which Victor himself soon flees.

The creature pursues Victor across Europe, in revenge for this abandonment by his own creator. In case there is anyone who hasn’t read this before – I don’t want to reveal too much about havoc brought to Victor’s life by the thing he created, but he wreaks a terrible revenge. However, when Victor and the creature come together again on a mountain top (as you do) the creature – who can now speak, urges Victor to listen to his own story – the story of how he came to know language, how he learned to empathise, and feel affection for people.

‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow-devils, to admire and encourage him; but I am solitary and abhorred.’

The creature’s story – allows the reader to see the other side of the experiment – the creature becomes more human, though in his grief and horror at what he is, hasn’t finished with Victor yet. Having found himself ostracised by society for his physical hideousness, the creature urges Victor to make for him a mate – with whom he can disappear to an isolated place and live happily and companionably. Feeling he has no option, Victor agrees initially, though he is horrified at the very thought, so when he changes his mind and destroys the beginnings of his new creation, the creature’s fury is terrifying, his final revenge destroying any hope Victor had in the future.

Frankenstein, is an improbably, fantastic gothic fantasy, the reader needs to suspend belief – for what some have called an early science fiction novel which is full of slightly wonky science. These days Frankenstein can also be seen as an early horror story – having inspired so many creepy adaptations, but it is a novel of the romantic period, which is infused with the gothic elements I love so much.

mary shelley

Classic club update

2015-03-19_20.05.15

At very nearly the half way mark in my five year long classic club challenge – I am doing pretty well – in some respects. I do have a nasty habit of tinkering around with my list – it now stands at 185! – but no longer contains any books I consider really scary. I am pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to mess around with my list once it was made – but I really can’t leave it alone. There are quite a number of re-reads, many first time reads and naturally enough a huge number of Virago Modern Classics, there are books by favourite writers, and books by people I have never read before. Near enough two and a half years in, and I am still as enthusiastic as ever about the Classic Club. These days I am passionate about twentieth century classics, but remain an enormous Thomas Hardy fan, and have renewed my love for Jane Austen and the Brontes.

classicsclub2According to my dodgy maths (it’s possible I mis-counted) – I have 78 books on the list still to read I have just over two and half years left to do it – 31months makes just over 2.5 books each month for the remaining two years seven months – it’s doable –although is complicated by the fact that several of the books I don’t actually own (yet). I am going to try very, very hard now, to not add to or take anything off my list, but I admit when I was looking at it earlier I couldn’t help but feel tempted to add another 15 books to the list to make a nice round 200, but decided I would leave things as they are. Another fifteen books might just see me fail to complete the challenge – as I can’t help but notice that several of the ones I have yet to read are fairly fat books.

I have loved the books I have read so far for the Classic Club, too many stand out books to mention – some old favourites I revisited for the first time in years, and some new surprises. I have just finished re-reading Frankenstein, the fourth or fifth time I have read it, (review in a few days) and when I have finished writing this post, I am off to bed with Four Frightened People by E Arnot Robertson a novel which propelled the author to literary stardom, such was its acclaim when it was first published in 1931.
Are you a classic clubber – how are you doing?

penguins

august folly

August Folly is the fourth book in Angela Thirkell’s Barsetshire series of novels. It is light, bright breezy fun – and although I couldn’t possibly read more than one at a time, these novels are perfect fare for occasional, lazy, tired weekend reading. In short, as enjoyable as these Thirkell books can be – I do really need to be in the right frame of mind for them, which is why they have been sitting unread for some time. As it was, last weekend I was just in exactly the right frame of mind and I gobbled this book up in two days.

Set in the Barsetshire village of Worsted, we could only ever be in England amongst a certain class of person, with offspring down from Oxford, butlers and summer productions of Hippolytus. Richard Tebben is a young man just down from Oxford, knowing he did terribly he awaits his degree results. While other, wealthier young men enjoy themselves on the continent, Richard must endure the parental home for the summer, and all the irritants that go with it. His mother a former economics scholar, writes text books, his father a civil servant part of the week, devotes the remainder of his time in ancient Norwegian and Icelandic studies. Richard’s mother’s devotion is of that particularly excruciating kind which inflames Richard’s irritation even further. His parents living at Lambs Piece – paid for by his mother’s books, are not well off, they have no car, they prefer to economise with a donkey (Modestine) and cart, utter mortification to Richard. The Tebben’s one servant an atrocious cook, whose tendency to deliver tasteless meals goes unnoticed by the deliciously vague Winifred Tebben.

Mrs Palmer – a rather managing type of woman, is known for organising an annual play – and an impressive number of people just calmly accept they will play their part. This year the play is Euripides’s Hippolytus, and Richard is to train the chorus. The wonderfully glamourous Dean family – related to Mrs Palmer by marriage, are to be spending the summer at The Dower house in Worsted, and several of them will be taking part in the play. The Palmers are comfortably off, childless and pillars of the community, Mrs Palmer can’t help but be proud of her husband’s sister and her family, they are very well off indeed. Mrs Dean is a very young looking beauty and the mother of an awe-inspiring nine children – although only six of them are in Worsted with their parents. Richard’s sister Margaret, also home for the summer arrives; a girl often over-looked by her parents who has spent a year in Grenoble as a governess. The Dean offspring arrive next, including one daughter who tears around the countryside in a racing car, another who wishes nothing more than to be a great scholar and can be a little priggish, and a rather eligible son, the stage is set indeed, for farce, romance and gentle comedy. Margaret it appears met this eligible son Laurence Dean while abroad, and Laurence’s sister Helen is not sure quite what she thinks of this burgeoning friendship. Richard’s head however is turned by Mrs Dean the moment he sees her – and the smitten young man begins to go to great lengths to help and impress the gentle goddess.

“Sparrow was now lighting candles on the table, and Richard was able to see his neighbour for the first time. If she had a grown-up son, she must be at least as old as his mother, Richard guessed, but no one would think it. With a backwash of irritation he compared his mother’s untidy, shorn hair, her shabby trailing clothes, her maddening enthusiasms, with the still composure of this Mrs Dean, who wore her shining dark hair in a knot, was dressed in something shimmeringly white, and hated Greek plays. That Mrs Dean had always had money did not occur to him. There was something about her stillness that gave her a disquieting charm, which even Richard, very self-absorbed, and not at all sensitive except about himself, could not help feeling.”

As rehearsals for the play get underway, Laurence’s pursuit of Margaret does not – needless to say – go smoothly; he does in fact make rather a mess of it. Meanwhile Helen, who is confused and unhappy by the change in her relationship with her favourite brother, confides her feelings to middle aged family friend Charles Fanshawe. Charles, another academic, former tutor to Richard and Margaret’s mother, slowly begins to acknowledge his feelings for Helen, so very much younger than himself, who, he has noticed is spending quite a lot of time with Richard. Richard has to face up to realities, and put aside his childish infatuation, smarting slightly at the lesson he has learnt in the process.

“Richard went round to the stable-yard with the words ‘nearly fifty’ sounding unpleasantly in his ears. He had never thought of his divinity having any particular age, but now he came to think of it, if Laurence, as he happened to know, was twenty-seven or nearly twenty-eight, Mrs Dean could hardly be much less than fifty, unless she had married unusually young. Fifty was rather a drab word. Of course age meant nothing with such a woman as Mrs Dean, but one oughtn’t to have to think of it.”

In August Folly we have several relationships which develop between people of very unequal ages and siblings have to contend with the reality of the changes that naturally occur when romance rears its ugly head. Thirkell paints a vivid picture, of a certain kind of English life between the wars, families have clearly defined positions in society – all of our central characters here are of the upper-middle classes, but it’s their financial positions which set them apart. I also enjoyed spotting the literary references, with Thirkell’s allusions to Jane Austen characters and Robert Louis Stevenson. The one thing I could really have done without, if I am being honest, were the couple of (thankfully) short sections of whimsy – that recount conversations between Modestine (often called Neddy) the donkey and Gunnar the Tebben family cat – all very cute I’m sure – but for me irritating and totally unnecessary. August Folly is a joyous enough read when one is in the right frame of mind, there is a delicious lightness of touch, but Thirkell conceals some sharp commentary behind what could so easily be called froth.

angela thirkell

theship

The Ship is Antonia Honeywell’s debut novel –, it is a dystopian work of brilliant imagination set in a not very distant future. Crucially perhaps, it all feels very, terrifyingly credible. This could indeed, very well be the world we are moving toward, a world that has destroyed itself, wasted its resources and is counting the cost.

I was born at the end of the world, although I did not know it at the time. While I fretted at my mother’s breast, demanding more milk than she was able to give me, great cargo ships sailed out of countries far, far away, carrying people from lands that were sinking, or burning, or whose natural bounty had been exhausted. While I took my first stumbling steps, cities across the world that had once housed great industries crumbled into dust, and pleasure islands that had been raised from the oceans melted back into them as though they had never existed. And as I began to talk, the people in the surviving corners of civilisation fell silent, and plugged their ears and their hearts while the earth was plundered for its last scrapings of energy, of fertility. Of life.

The world we’re introduced to in The Ship is a broken place, a place where things no longer grow, a place where pandemics, genocide and flood have taken a terrible toll upon different parts of the globe. Our narrator is Lalage (or Lalla), who turns sixteen as the novel opens. She lives in an apartment in London with her parents; Anna and Michael Paul – although her father who works for the government is often away. Lalla’s London is a frightening place, gangs in the underground, the camps in Regent’s Park have been bombed by the authorities and the British museum is filled with the human detritus of a world gone bad. It is a place where your most prized possession is a registration card – a sophisticated system of I.D – without a card a person literally has nothing – they are a non-person, with no access to the tools they need to survive, no access to food or shelter. Everyone has their own screen – linked by satellite to their registration card – Lalla’s father had designed and sold the screen software; Dove, to the military government, making him a fantastically wealthy man. On Lalla’s birthday her father; Michael Paul brings her a diamond, which he bought in exchange for a tin of peaches.

For years Michael Paul has been building, planning and getting ready The Ship – his dream, his solution, it is also his way of saving Lalla, giving her a future. He has spent years interviewing people to go with them, writing their names in the ship’s manifest, the people themselves living in a holding centre until the time is right. Till now Lalla has been fiercely protected by her parent’s what she knows of the world comes from them, her mother has taught her so much in their frequent visits to The British Museum to see what exhibits remain, and pass food to the rag-tag squatters who eke out an existence there.

One night, Lalla’s parents argue about whether it is time to move to the ship, when her mother moves to the window a gunshot rings out and Anna is shot. There is now only one place equipped to save Anna – the ship – and so Michael Paul, Lalla and her dangerously injured mother race to the ship, a message sent out to the people waiting for word. The ship is an almost paradise, stocked with years’ worth of food and clothing, for the five hundred people whose names appear in the manifest. All they need now is for the authorities to allow them to leave.

“From that day on, the new days just kept coming. The ship became a busy place, a bright place, a place where people smiled and talked and revelled in their safety and fullness.”

Before the ship can leave, Lalla faces a harsh and terrible lesson as her mother lays sedated by the one doctor on board. She has no practical experience of life, pain and loss – she has been protected so absolutely, as these chosen people prepare to leave behind the broken, dying world on land, Lalla encounters her first traumatic event. Lalla is young, naïve, and unquestioning, now everything she has known is shaken up, watching desperate people throwing themselves into the water as the ship leaves harbour Lalla becomes aware of a young man with green eyes.

“Night time was new to me. In London, going out in the dark would have been akin to plunging a hand into boiling water or eating from the pavement. Although I had seen the night from our flat, there had always been some light out there – from the oil drums, from street fires, from screens. Here there was nothing. I could not even see whether my father was still there. I stepped carefully towards the sound of his breathing, feeling for the deck rail and gasping with the cold of it. Then I felt my father’s hand, and I placed mine over it. He opened his coat and wrapped me inside it”

Lalla has many things to learn, and as she marks off the days on her cabin wall – she finally begins to question. Where are they going? Is it right they have so much when the rest of the world is dying? Lalla has enjoyed roast chicken for the first time in years, she has tinned pineapple for the very first time, and finds croissants laid out at breakfast, and is given a new screen by her father loaded with images of artwork and museum exhibits she can ‘visit’ anytime. Lalla is given work in the laundry which she finds strangely fulfilling – and slowly she begins to get to know the people her father chose – though she finds their blind, unquestioning faith in Michael a little disturbing. In a short space of time, Lalla does a lot of growing up – and finally she comes to a place where she must make a decision of her own.

The Ship has several powerfully allegorical messages, the ship could be seen as a metaphor for the grasping, consumerist society that we currently take for granted. The stores stacked high with food – while the damaged, broken world that has been left behind starves. Then there are obvious biblical parallels; the chosen people, a promised land, Michael at times taking on an almost Moses like or even Messiah like persona – with his people following faithfully. This is a book I want to sit down and discuss with friends – I have told several friends and my sister to get it so that I can.

The Ship is richly imagined and very well written, it is also a wonderful page turner. I am not known for reading dystopian fiction – although it is a genre I do like, and this is one that I heartily recommend, in fact I urge you all to read.

antoniahoneywell

solitarychild

Thankfully for Nina Bawden fans Bello books have a number of her titles available in both paperback and ebook editions, I must say I find their ebooks great value. Nina Bawden is an author who I have come to really admire; she was a quite prolific writer, writing for both adults and children over a career spanning many years.

The Solitary Child, I suspect is one title that is a little less well known than some of her others, another reason to be grateful to Bello.

“As the years pass, remembering becomes an academic exercise, a kind of cosy reckoning—a private game kept for the solitary train journeys, the white nights. You finish the crossword puzzle, read the new novel, but memory is inexhaustible, waiting to be taken out and examined without pain, touched inquiringly, like an old scar. There is no longer any emotion involved; what remains is pictorial and vivid. The little things stand out, the fly on the wall, the coffee stain on the carpet.”

When twenty-two year old Harriet becomes engaged to the much older James Random after knowing him less than a fortnight, she faces an uphill struggle to have her relationship accepted. James is a gentleman farmer from the Welsh borders, whose first wife Eva died in what had been described as ‘unforgettable circumstances.’ James had been charged, and tried with her murder, later acquitted a shadow hangs over him, suspicion lurking in the minds of many. When Harriet’s mother discovers the identity of Harriet’s fiancé she is devastated, but her concern seems to rest mainly with what her char lady thinks. Harriet marries James without her mother there to see her, before going to Switzerland on honeymoon for two months.

Following the honeymoon, the newlyweds arrive home, to the farm where James had lived with Eva, the place where she died a violent death. James’s sister Ann is waiting for them, she lives close by in a couple of Victorian cottages, saddled with a hypochondriac friend who she is forever running back to. Harriet soon senses strains between James and Ann, things not said, and Ann’s other friend – Cyril who had once wanted to marry Ann, is clearly not someone James wants around. James’s sixteen year old daughter who has been living with her mother’s parents is reported missing on the night of James and Harriet’s return home; everyone seems to think she is heading back to the farm. Harriet is rather shocked by her husband’s attitude towards Maggie – who he clearly does not want at home. Eva was apparently a selfish, damaged woman, who made James’s life a misery – is Maggie like her mother? Is she a painful reminder to James or are there things Harriet doesn’t yet know? When Harriet discovers Maggie hiding in the old servant’s quarters, she immediately feels protective towards the childlike girl.

“She crouched on the floor in a corner, huddled still and small like a hunted animal, plaster powdered like snow on her navy, reefer coat. She had, only recently, been out in the rain. Her wet, blond hair clung sleekly to her head, her eyes, wide and grey and steady, stared at me with a remote expression as if she were only half awake or did not see me properly. “You must be my step-mother,” she said. Her voice was light and hasty, trailing into silence. She stood up; her schoolgirl’s coat, unbuttoned, hung about her like a sack.”

Maggie is a complicated mix of contradictions, young for her age and childlike although obviously very sexual and completely aware of the effect she has on others. Manipulating Harriet’s liking for her, Maggie ensures she is able to stay despite her father wanting her to go back to her grandparents. Maggie is a very strange character; there are times when she seems too young – Harriet appears strangely blind to her obvious oddness and I found Harriet’s total absorption in Maggie a little unbelievable – but that is a small point after all this is a woman who married a man in unseemly haste.

Harriet slowly begins to doubt so much that she had taken for granted, the whispers of others about James’s guilt begin to sow seeds of doubt – doubts she valiantly tries to push aside. The more she hears about Eva and the events of the day she died, the more she realises why so many people said James was the only one who could have done it. Cruel, anonymous letters sent to Harriet also shake her a little, a fall down the stairs – which might have been a push, and a devastating miscarriage take their toll on Harriet and she begins to look at James in a new way.

There is a brilliant oppressiveness to this novel, the farm and the people who live and work there are superbly portrayed – as is the nosey little journalist who pops up adding fuel to the fire, and the slimy young man with whom it is said Eva had had an affair. Their world feels like a world of shadows and secrets, and Harriet becomes less and less certain of what is real.

“Harriet.” I turned and James was standing above me, at the top of the slope, black against the moon. He was about four feet away from me and he was carrying a gun. I had a sick and vivid picture. She was shot at close range, shot as she turned from the bridge because he called to her. And then I saw that it wasn’t a gun on his arm but a walking-stick.”

The Solitary Child is enormously readable, an atmospheric novel with an intriguing mystery at the heart of it. It is also a well written study in uncomfortable relationships; Nina Bawden explores her characters astutely, and the way in which she teases out the mystery at the heart of this story makes it hard to put down.

nina bawden

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,740 other followers