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Christa T

I have found The Quest for Christa T a difficult book to review, it’s a delicately nuanced, complex novel, and the writing is very beautiful. It is a multi-layered novel, at times it is really quite difficult, but the reader is rewarded for their concentration. Ultimately I was left with a tantalising jumble of images; village school rooms, German countryside, sick rooms and trains.

Christa Wolf was one of the best known novelists to emerge from East Germany. Born in 1929 Wolf went on to be awarded a host of international awards throughout her writing career, The Quest for Christa T. was her second published novel.

“Then she began to blow, or to shout, there’s no proper word for it. It was this I reminded her of, or wanted to, in my last letter, but she wasn’t reading any more letters, she was dying. She was always tall, and thin, until the last years, after she’d had the children. So there she was, walking along in front, stalking head-in-air along the curb, and suddenly she put a rolled up newspaper to her mouth and let go with her shout: HOOOHAAHOOO –something like that. She blew her trumpet and the off duty sergeants and corporals of the local defense corps stopped and stared and shook their heads at her. Well, she’s cuckoo, that’s for sure. Now you see what she can be like, one of the other girls said to me.”

Our unnamed narrator becomes somewhat fascinated and inexplicably drawn to Christa T. when they are both still school girls. In the street one day, toward the end of the Second World War, Christa T. puts a rolled up newspaper to her mouth, trumpet like – and yells through it – it is an action which seems to speak particularly of Christa T’s spirit, her independence and slight daring. For our narrator this moment – one she returns to again and again in retrospect – heralds the start of their friendship, and ultimately the “quest” to understand Christa. This friendship is interrupted when Christa’s family leave the area during an evacuation in 1945. It is seven years before our narrator sees Christa again in a university classroom.

Christa’s story is told in retrospect, the structure of this novel is non-linear, and the story of the seven missing years and those that follow weave in and out of each other. In a sense, Christa’s story is a simple enough one, toward the end of the war two young girls meet, are separated, meet again some years later, living in a part of Germany under soviet control. Christa attends university, works as a village school teacher, has men fall in love with her, eventually she marries has children, moves to a new home, and dies of Leukaemia when only in her thirties. Yet there is something quite different in the telling of this story, part of which is told by our narrator through the scraps of words left behind, the notes, stories and letters, left behind by Christa, and examined and quoted by her friend as she tries to understand Christa now that she is gone.

“The quest for her: in the thought of her. And of the attempt to be oneself. She speaks of this in her diaries, which we have, on the loose manuscript pages that have been found, and between the lines of those letters of her that are known to me. I must forget my memory of Christa T. – that is what these documents have taught me. Memory puts a deceptive colour on things”

Yet Christa T. remains really rather elusive, throughout this brilliant novel, she is something of a shadow, someone who is both fascinating while remaining difficult to get a handle on. As our narrator moves back and forth telling the story of herself and Christa in her own disjointed fashion, we catch glimpses of the people, places and events in a life cut tragically short. This is the story of a search for the truth of a person, but it also helps to remind us of the difficult, new world of East Germany that the author herself was living in. The Quest for Christa T. however isn’t an obviously political novel, although it is tempting to look for clues to the author’s own political leanings, a woman who watched by the Stasi for thirty years, actually opposed the reunification of Germany.

The narrative is often obscure – for example in the references to the times in which these women live – Christa and her husband visit a cousin on the “other side”. Initially both women appear happy with their way of life, while embracing the new order of their world; they seem to reject the values of the west. Yet the book also speaks of the dangers of totalitarianism – as Christa T. appears to be destroyed; her desire for the new home by the lake that she and her husband are building at odds with the Soviet ideal.

witmonthThis novel is about a friendship, but more than that it is about the truth, the search for truth, and memory and how memory can sometimes let us down. Sometimes we have to readjust our memories of people in what we learn of them later, memory can be false or inaccurate.

I have already said that the writing is beautiful, and it is, and hats off to the translator of this novel – whose poetic, elusive prose suits perfectly the unique narrative. There were moments when the elusive, obscurity of the novel frustrated me a little (I am sure this is a novel which is improved upon with subsequent reading) – but I think the reader has to just go with it, allow the language and the images to envelop you without trying too hard to work out what exactly is going on.

christa Wolf

the love child - bello

Edith Olivier’s first slight little novel; The Love Child is a wonderful, quirky little fantasy. Part dark hearted fairy-tale, it is a story of an obsession born of loneliness.

Agatha Bodenham has lived a quiet, largely solitary life with her mother. When she is thirty-two her mother dies, and Agatha finds herself alone but for the servants. She remembers the friend and great joy of her childhood – Clarissa. Clarissa her imaginary friend with whom she played and had adventures, but who Agatha had to rid herself of at fourteen when her governess mocked her. Now, with loneliness swamping her, Agatha finds she can summon up the image of Clarissa – just as she was all those years ago.

“She was smaller even than Agatha had imagined her, and she looked young for her age, which must have been ten or eleven. Her hair was brushed off her face and tied back with a brown ribbon, a little darker than the hair, which was dappled like the skin of a fawn. Her face was tiny, very pale, and her eyes were dappled brown like her hair. She wore a short white dress of embroidered cambric, and on her feet were the little red shoes which Agatha knew she had always worn.”

At first Clarissa comes just by night, she remains an insubstantial spirit like wraith – and Agatha is able to play with the child of her imagination as she did in childhood. Clarissa brings Agatha great joy and companionship; she is a secret which Agatha hugs to herself. Yet Clarissa begins to develop more substance, and soon Agatha becomes aware, that sometimes, other people can see her.

Agatha takes Clarissa to Brighton – here among people who don’t know her, Agatha can spend several happy weeks with Clarissa. Homesickness calls Agatha home, and she must come up with a way of explaining the presence of Clarissa. In some panic Agatha rashly describes Clarissa as her own love child.

“ ‘A love-child.’ The phrase had surged up from her inner consciousness, and she spoke it without realising what it implied. It did just express what Clarissa truly was to her – the creation of the love of all her being. It was truth, and in face of truth she knew that no one could take the child away, She had saved her.
But at what a cost! Her position, her name, her character – she had given them all, but Clarissa was hers, with a right which no law could override.”

the love child vmcClarissa doesn’t remain a little girl, soon she is seventeen, and still awkward around other people she finds she is happiest staying close to Agatha. However Kitty the rector’s daughter who is the same age as Clarissa and who Agatha and Clarissa have been obliged to entertain over the years, introduces Clarissa to David. David, Clarissa and Agatha go driving and attend picnics, Agatha must always attend, and David becomes increasingly irritated. Agatha is watchful, jealous and terrified that David may take Clarissa from her. David is a dull young man, Clarissa’s irrepressible spirit draws David like a moth to a candle but Agatha is determined to keep Clarissa for herself. Both wish only to possess Clarissa for themselves. There was a moment which reminded me of Rapunzel as David stands below Agatha’s window calling to Clarissa. Agatha spirals off into obsessive, desperation; Clarissa is all that stands between her and the loneliness she fears.

This novella is an absolute joy, one I had meant to read for ages – there are a lot of books on my shelves like that though. I glanced through the frustratingly short Wikipedia entry for Edith Olivier, and see that until he died in 1919; Edith was fairly dominated by her father. In 1927 (the year this novella was first published) Edith’s younger sister died, and so I suppose it is possible to see elements of Edith in the character of Agatha – at least as she is when the story begins.

Bello books are doing a great job bringing books like The Love Child to a new generation of readers, and I am very happy with my little Bello edition – but of course original green Virago collector that I am – I will keep my eyes peeled for an original VMC edition to add to it.

edith olivier

the lying days

Some books live unread on our shelves for an inexplicably long time, so that when eventually we pick them up, we wonder what on earth took us so long. That is certainly the case with The Lying Days, both this novel and Nadine Gordimer’s Booker winning The Conservationist have been residing on my to be read shelves for several years. I am very glad though that I started with this one, because it was, as I soon discovered, Gordimer’s first novel. As a first novel it is extraordinary – there is a slow, dreamlike quality to much of the narrative, sections where little happens, and in that perhaps we see the inexperience of a first time novelist. There is however, still so much to admire in this, South African novel of a young woman’s political and emotional emergence into a complex, divided society.

“Statutes and laws and pronouncements may pass over the heads of the people whom they concern, but shame does not need the medium of literacy. Humiliation goes dumbly home – a dog, a child too small to speak can sense it – and it sank right down through all the arid layers of African life in the city and entered the blood even of those who could not understand why they felt and acted as they did, or even knew that they felt or acted.”

Our narrator is Helen Shaw who grows up in the white community that surrounds the Atherton gold mine where her father is secretary. Here within a fairly privileged, sheltered white world – Helen is an only child, cossetted by a mother’s who has never sought to question anything around her. The family have a large, comfortable house, a black servant, Anna looks after the domestic tasks, but she lives outside the house in a small dwelling behind the main house. The family and the other white people associated with the mine, socialise only with one another. Meanwhile the black mine workers have little impact upon the lives of these white people whose very world is designed to come into contact with them as little as possible. For the first seventeen years of her life, this is the only world that Helen knows. Then, Helen is allowed to go and spend the summer with Mrs Koch a family friend on the coast. Here Helen meets Ludi, a soldier on leave, Mrs Koch’s son, is a lot older than Helen, sensual and a little unconventional, he begins to show Helen that there is another world than the one she grew up in.

Back at the mine Helen has to decide whether she will go to the University in Johannesburg. Delaying for a while in the turmoil she brings back with her from the coast, she eventually decides to go, surprising her parents and herself with her sudden decision. At first Helen travels back and forth by train, and it is on the train that she meets Joel Aaron, a young Jewish man around her own age. In her friendship with Joel, Helen begins to see the world as it really is, in her mother’s reaction to her friendship with a Jewish person, the scales begin to fall from her eyes. Other people Helen comes into contact with in Johannesburg further help to shape her new emerging view of the world, Mary, one of just a few black students at the University, comes from a very different world, her living conditions making it increasingly difficult to study.

“We followed Mary’s directions past decent little houses, each as big as a tool shed with a tin chimney throbbing out the life of the house in smoke. In many of them the door was open and a sideboard or a real dining-table in varnished wood showed. Outside their bare walls were ballasted with lean-tos made of beaten-out paraffin tins, home-made verandas like the shoemakers and porches made of boxwood, chicken wire and runner beans. Each had two or three yards of ground in front, fenced with a variety of ingenuity, and inside mealies hung their silk tassels from the pattern of straight stalk and bent leaf. Some grew flowers instead; as it was winter, rings and oblongs of white stones marked out like graves the place where they would come up again. And some grew only children, crawling and huddling in the dust with only eyes looking out of dust.”

township SAConcerned for Mary, Helen suggests that Mary should come to the mine, and be allowed to study in a room on their property, a plan greeted by horror by her parents. Helen decides to move more permanently to the city. Sharing a flat with a young married couple, Helen begins to move within a circle of bohemian dissension. Surrounded by these people Helen begins to grow, her politics and conscience formed by what she sees and hears around her. Here Helen meets Paul, a man actively working for change, and despite her parents’ outrage, sets up home with him. Gordimer explores their relationship with skill, from the first heady days of love, and daily domesticity, to the days when rising tensions begin to impact on their idyll.

Much of the novel – the days of Helen’s rising political awareness – is set to a back drop of the 1949 elections which saw Dr Malan’s Nationalist Party come to power.

“Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. We wanted a quick shock, over and done with, but what we were going to get was something much slower, surer, and more terrible: an apparent sameness in the conduct of our lives, long periods when there was nothing more to hurt us than words in Parliament and talk of the Republic which we laughed at for years and, recurrently, a mounting number of weary battles – apartheid in public transport and buildings, the ban on mixed marriages, the Suppression of Communism bill, the language ordinance separating Afrikaans and English-speaking children in schools, the removal of coloured voters from the common electoral roll and the setting aside of the Supreme Court judgment that made this act illegal – passionate debated in the Parliament with the United Party and Labour Party forming the Opposition, inevitably lost to the Government before the first protest was spoken.”

Naturally now we can only read this novel in the full knowledge of what occurred in South Africa following this time. Nadine Gordimer chose to stay in South Africa where she continued to write and became very politically active herself. Several of her later novels came to be banned by the Apartheid government. A truly inspirational and fascinating woman – I urge you to read her Wikipedia entry if nothing else, among many awards throughout her career she won the Noble prize for literature in 1991. The awards are easy to understand – her writing is very simply brilliant, and I look forward to reading more.

Nadine Gordimer

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‘They were all very kind at Oxford,’ I assured her, for she had seemed to think they were not. ‘No one shunned me or ripped my stockings or took my bicycle on “loan”.’
‘So,’ said the Sister nodding as she slid the enormous bundle of silver keys into her pocket. ‘So. That was good.’

So starts Jennifer Dawson’s 1961 novel The Ha-Ha, her first novel; which won the 1962 James Tait Black memorial award for fiction. It tells the story of a young woman’s stay in a psychiatric hospital; the author had worked as a social worker in a similar place.

Our narrator; Josephine, a fragile, clever young woman, with an unspecified mental illness (possibly schizophrenia) has been carefully taken away from college life, when Josephine’s imagined private world begins to overtake her in public. Committed to hospital, Josephine is coaxed gradually toward returning to ‘normal life’ by a German sister. As Josephine begins to recover, her mind returns to the time before her hospitalisation, when she was still living with her mother, who disapproved of her daughter’s eccentricities and called her ‘the giggly one’.

“I thought of Mother reading her nightly portion, ‘stoking up’ as she would say, digesting a biscuit, or copulating, grey and withered, with Father, while round her raced the arthropods, the pigs, the hippopotami, the even-toed ungulates and ruminants (rumini?). They pranced and they danced, and I laughed and laughed. I had not laughed so loudly, so coarsely, since the Principal’s tea-party. Mother came rushing up flushed and anxious.
‘Josephine, my dear Josephine,’ she looked severe, but sad too. ‘Try to pull yourself together; I have not seen the giggly one for such a long time! What has happened to our good resolutions?”

Josephine’s mother we discover is now dead, an accident with an electric blanket – and Josephine has been left to exist in a world her imagination fills with animals. As the novel begins and Josephine is asked if the animals have retreated, her affirmative reply seeming to point to her recovery. Josephine is to be prepared for release, and in a bid to help rehabilitate her to regular life, she is given a job in the town, cataloguing a library for a Colonel and his wife. The society of people out in the so called normal world is one strewn with hazards for Josephine, interacting with people again can feel stressful, she doesn’t always understand the rules. One day she bumps into Helena an old college friend, a friend with no knowledge of Josephine’s illness and hospitalisation, Helena invites Josephine to a party, and Josephine is torn about whether to attend.

In the afternoons after she finishes her work, Josephine walks back to the hospital, stopping to sit for a while in a ha-ha on the edge of the hospital grounds. Here she meets Alasdair – a patient from the male side of the hospital. Alasdair is rather casual about the hospital rules and routines; his laid back air of world weary experience is instantly attractive to Josephine. Josephine talks to Alasdair about her work, the party that she does attend and which is not a success, and he regales her with tales from the men’s ward.

“The next day the world filled slowly with rain. It was the first for nearly two months, and everything was wrapped in a film of grey-green. It hung there like a screen before the summer world, and I wanted to run behind it and regain the dry landscape where I had been happy. I wanted to run behind it and hide from the Sister’s cries that followed me everywhere that Saturday:
‘Josephine, Josephine, was it a good party? Was Waterminster Place a happy place, dearie?”

Josephine begins a relationship with Alasdair – the first such relationship she has had. Alasdair takes Josephine on day out to the other side of the hill they see from the ha-ha. This day out is such a happy one for Josephine, but she is still fragile, and not really ready for the new world that Alasdair has opened up to her. When Alasdair leaves the hospital, it sparks a crisis for Josephine.

“I will swim back silently,” I thought, “as though I had never been absent.”

Josephine’s voice throughout this novel rings clear, funny, bright but vulnerable, Dawson’s narrative is both engaging and perceptive. Aside from the story of Josephine, Dawson’s novel also acts as a protest against many of the practices in such institutions at this time, as Dawson herself explains in her Afterword to my edition.

It would seem that Jennifer Dawson’s six novels are all out of print – and I would so like to read more of her work,

jennifer dawson

Spinning around again

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classics clubI feel I have rather neglected the Classic Club of late, although I love it as much as ever. Despite reading a lot of books written before 1960 not all of them would be considered classics and they haven’t been from my Classic Club list (and I am not adding any more to that list!). So having set myself a target to try and read at least two cc books a month from my 180 strong list (gulp!) I think I am a bit behind only reading five since the beginning of May. Therefore I was pleased to see that The Classic Club are hosting another Classic Club spin – I haven’t joined in a spin for ages. One thing a Classic Club spin does do is to re-ignite my enthusiasm for my list – so perhaps September will see me reading more than just one title.

The Rules from the Classic Club site:

“It’s easy. At your blog, by next Monday, August 24, list your choice of any twenty books you’ve left to read from your Classics Club list — in a separate post.
This is your Spin List. You have to read one of these twenty books in September & October. (Details follow.) So, try to challenge yourself. For example, you could list five Classics Club books you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
Next Monday, we’ll post a number from 1 through 20. The challenge is to read whatever book falls under that number on your Spin List, by October 23, 2015. We’ll have a check in here in October, to see who made it the whole way and finished the spin book.”

There are four sections to my list this time, re-reads, women authors, male authors and short story collections.

Five books I have read before:
1 Mill on the Floss by George Eliot
2 Agnes Grey – Anne Bronte
3 Mansfield Park – Jane Austen
4 Doctor Thorne – Anthony Trollope
5 My Career Goes Bung – Miles Franklin

Five books written by women
6 The Curate’s Wife – E H Young
7 The Little Girls – Elizabeth Bowen
8 The Squire – Enid Bagnold
9 Death comes for the Archbishop – Willa Cather
10 Cindie – Jean Devanny

Five books written by men
11 The Longest Journey – E M Forster
12 The Way of all Flesh – Samuel Butler
13 The Phantom of the Opera – Gaston Leroux
14 Smoke – Ivan Turgenev
15 Effi Briest – Theodor Fontane

Five Collections of short stories
16 A Dedicated Man & other stories – Elizabeth Taylor
17 The Yellow Wallpaper & selected writings – Charlotte Perkins Gillman
18 Roman Fever – Edith Wharton
19 The Murders in the Rue Morgue and other tales – Edgar Alan Poe
20 The Garden Party & other stories – Katherine Mansfield

There is nothing on the list I fear – I don’t have time in my life to read books I am afraid of – but a few of them would actually need to be purchased in order for me to read them – not a problem I have a few vouchers left unspent.
Good luck spinners – I hope you get what you want – whatever that may be.

classicclub meme

those who leave and those who stay

Ferrante fever is about to go into overdrive again when the fourth and final part of Elena Ferrante’s extraordinarily successful series of novels is published in a couple of weeks (and yes I have it on pre-order).

Those who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third novel of the four part Neapolitan series begins in the present – 2005 – with a reminder of why Elena is telling this story of hers and Lila’s lives. In 2005 Elena and Lila are in their sixties when Lila disappears – Elena knows Lila better than anyone, and she understands that Lila has both the will and the resourcefulness to vanish completely if she so desires. This disappearance so annoys Elena that she begins to write the story of their friendship through the changes that childhood, adolescence, education, marriage and ambition bring to their lives. Elena knows how furious Lila would be at her writing their story, perhaps angry enough to crawl back out of the woodwork. This series of novels (for anyone who doesn’t know) is the story of a complex, competitive often destructive friendship between two intelligent women who grew up in a volatile, vibrant neighbourhood of Naples.

Returning to the past, Elena picks up the story of Lila and Elena where the second novel ended, with Elena visiting Lila at the sausage factory belonging to Bruno Soccavo. Having left her husband Lila works at the factory while living with childhood friend, Enzo away from the neighbourhood where the girls grew up. Elena meanwhile, having originally left for university, is still living in Pisa, engaged to Pietro Airota a brilliant young academic; she has recently published a controversial novel, and is planning to move to Florence after her marriage. At an event to publicise her novel Elena sees Nino Sarratore, and all her old feelings come flooding back. Nevertheless, Elena intends to go ahead with her wedding which will see her part of a well thought of academic family, she has a determination to escape the Neapolitan streets where she grew up.

Lila becomes heavily involved in the violent confrontation that blows up between student activists, communists and fascists. Lila seeks to expose the harsh working conditions in Soccavo’s factory, even at great risk to herself. Resurrecting that fierce intelligence with which Elena always competed, Lila speaks openly and scathingly at meetings about the daily practices at the factory, and Elena using her newly acquired contacts writes and publishes an article about the working conditions at the factory.

“Can you imagine what it means to go in and out of refrigerated rooms at twenty degrees below zero, and get ten lire more an hour – ten lire – for cold compensation? If you imagine this, what do you think you can learn from people who are forced to live like that?”

Lila’s health had suffered during this volatile period of conflict, and during one of Elena’s visits home Lila had sent for her. This is typical of Lila and Elena’s relationship – they drift in out of one another’s life, frequently they are physically separated from each other through living now in different cities, their friendship existing in the connection of their shared past, and occasional phone calls. Yet the women come together at times of great crisis and when Lila is suffering and in need Elena is there. Lila returns to the old neighbourhood where they grew up, living with Enzo still, the feud with her estranged husband seemingly at an end. Elena, marries her professor and moves to Florence, intending to write another book.

“People died of carelessness, of corruption, of abuse, and yet, in every round of voting, gave their enthusiastic approval to the politicians who made their life unbearable.”

Ferrante is particularly adept at portraying this late 60’s early 70’s political radicalising among certain sections of Italian society. The world is changing in many places, yet in the old neighbourhood where Lila and Enzo return to – many things stay the same. Where once the feared Don Achille ruled, the Solara’s have taken over; Michele is still trying to induce Lila to work for him, his old obsession for her never quite forgotten. Marcello Solara however, much to Elena’s disgust has taken up with Elisa – Elena’s younger sister.

In Florence, Elena is soon a mother; the writing she had planned takes a back seat to her domestic duties as she struggles with a young baby, while her husband spends his days at the University, waging strange battles of his own, and his nights writing an important academic book. Marriage is difficult for Elena; Pietro is self-absorbed and often selfish. Nino Sarratore; Lila and Elena’s friend from childhood is never far from her thoughts; Elena can never quite free herself from her once great, unrequited love. So when Nino turns up in Florence, Elena’s world is thrown into confused disarray.

“Marriage by now seemed to me an institution that, contrary to what one might think, stripped coitus of all humanity.”

Those who Leave and Those who Stay – is more about Elena than Lila, focussing on her struggles with marriage and motherhood, her sense of having lost something of herself as her ambitions are thwarted by the realities of her new life. I really did enjoy this third instalment, it remains very readable, so well written, characters are explored in depth and Ferrante recreates the times in which they live brilliantly. The one thing that stops this instalment being quite as brilliant as the first two novels is that Lila and Elena are together much less. The first two novels are driven by the complex, ever changing relationship of Lila and Elena, their competitiveness with each other, and their tendency for each of them to assess themselves by comparison with the other. However this novel is vital to understand these two women as they move from very young women to women in their early thirties. The changes that take place in their lives because of work or motherhood are the changes which many women find take them away from the people, places and dreams of their adolescence.

witmonth

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Some books are particularly difficult to talk about coherently because in many ways nothing very much happens. That is in no way ever a criticism from me – because quite simply I prefer books like that. The Happy Tree by Rosalind Murray – Persephone book number 108 – is a glorious example of such books. This is a novel about an idyllic childhood and the slow, sad disappointing years that come after it. The Happy Tree is not however a depressing book, it is somehow more than just the story of a series of griefs and disappointments. Rosalind Murray’s writing lifts it beyond that age old tale of the mistakes that are made when the choices for women are so limited. It is difficult to covey the absolute perfection of this novel, but it is certainly a contender for one of my books of the year.

“And my life up to now comes before me very clearly; the people and the places, and the choices and mistakes, and I seem to see it all in better proportion than before; less clouded and blurred across by the violent emotion of youth.”

The Happy Tree opens with the death of a young man, and told in retrospect by a woman who is slightly astonished to find she is now forty. Our narrator, Helen Woodruffe remembers her childhood with her adored cousins Guy and Hugo in the years before the First World War. We then witness the emotional toll the war takes on Helen, as it necessarily takes or changes the people she loves. Helen grew up spending part of her life in London in the home of her grandmother and part in Yearsly, the country estate of the Laurier family. Here at Yearsly Helen spends her happiest times, basking in the comforting, calm presence of Cousin Delia her husband John and their sons Guy and Hugo. At Yearsly life is easy and relaxed; the three children have the blissful freedom of gardens, tennis courts, meadows and woods in which to play, and their most special place – the Happy Tree.

“This wood was a particular home for us: we played in the trees like birds or squirrels, and built great nests of sticks in which we sat.
We had special trees too – good trees and bad trees, which seemed to us like people. There was one in particular, a very big one, which we called the Happy Tree.”

It is with Hugo that Helen has the strongest bond; she feels she shares a special understanding with Hugo that is unique. First Guy goes away to school, and then a couple of years later Hugo goes away too and Helen sees less of them as they grow up, but when the holidays come around the three come together again at Yearsly. All too quickly however, childhood ends.

the happy treeAs the elder sibling Guy goes to Oxford first, followed in time by Hugo. In these years of early adulthood before the war intrudes, Helen still sees a lot of Guy and Hugo, meeting them and their friends at Oxford. They introduce her to the Addingtons, Mollie and George a brother and sister who it soon seems to Helen she must have always known. These are the people most important to Helen as a young woman, she is (although barely admitting it even to herself) in love with Hugo, but when it appears that Hugo does not return her feelings, Helen drifts into marriage with an Oxford acquaintance of her cousins, Walter Sebright a rather dry academic. Walter’s outlook on life is very different to that of Guy and Hugo, Walter is irritated by Helen’s genteel cousins, he finds their easy way of moving through life at odds with his own hard-working, middle-class upbringing. Walter’s sister Maud is a headmistress of a school, a rather strident, managing woman she has very definite ideas about things and when Walter and Helen announce their engagement she is quick to tell Helen how she must expect to live as a poor professor’s wife. Cousin Delia is as supportive as ever, she seems to sense that Helen isn’t as happy with her choice as she should be, and counsels caution, but overwhelmed by the weight of the decision she has already made Helen goes ahead with her wedding.

“he said
‘It will be better when we are married. Only two weeks more to wait now’
And I knew then that it was bound to come; that I must go through with it; and I did not know whether it was a mistake or not”

War comes to Europe and everything is changed, Helen a young still quite newly married woman, fears for her husband now she is a mother, but Walter is passed as medically unfit for service. Guy, Hugo and many of their friends including George Addington head off to war, while Mollie turns her hand to nursing. Not everyone comes home, and those who do are changed, the world is changed and their special places are altered too. Helen struggles to find her way in this new, brittle, post war world.

“It’s hard for me now when I think of those years at Yearsly to see them clearly and critically at all. It seems to me now that the life we led was a perfect life, as happy and complete as any children could possibly have. I know that is unlikely to have been quite perfect for nothing is; perhaps we were too idle; perhaps we should have been made to work harder and take lessons more seriously, I know Walter thinks we were all spoiled, that the realities of life were not brought before us, and that Guy and Hugo suffered afterwards for this. There may be something in what he says. I don’t know. I only know that it was the happiest part of my life and I believe of theirs too, and that it helped me afterwards, when things were bad and difficult, to look back to those times and live them over again; and as for Guy and Hugo they were and are to me all I could wish for anyone to be, and I cannot wish anything at all different about them.”

Helen is just one of thousands of women, she understands that all too well herself, women whose lives were interrupted by a terrible war, who lost people they loved and married the wrong men. Helen is representative of that generation of women, who find they have aged quicker than they expected, emotionally scarred by the war, and the losses it brought. The past remains the one bright light in Helen’s life, her mind can’t help but return to the days at Yearsly when she Guy and Hugo were young. There is a beautiful, tender poignancy to this novel, by a woman I hadn’t heard of until Persephone re-issued this novel.

Rosalind Murray

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