There are those books which it is really hard to convey just how good they are in a mere review, this is one such novel, which all goes to show, books should just be read to be appreciated. Ruffian on the Stair was Nina Bawden’s last novel published in 2001 four years before her book Dear Austen, the letter she wrote to her husband Austen Kark who was killed in the Potter’s Bar rail crash in 2002, when Nina Bawden was badly injured. If you are wondering about the title, as I was, this verse is quoted in the front of the novel.
“Madam Life’s a piece in bloom
Death goes digging everywhere
She’s the tenant of the room
He’s the ruffian on the stair
Silas Mudd just days away from his one hundredth birthday, is something of a wily old sod, his deafness coming and going as it suits him. As the preparations for a special family lunch to celebrate, get underway Silas come to reflect on his long life. He remembers those who he has lost, his two wives, the aunt who brought him up following his mother’s tragic death, his father and his beloved sister. It is the tragedy of such longevity that everyone, one knew when young, and so many people one has loved, are already long gone, Bawden was only in her mid-seventies when she wrote this novel, and yet she seems to have understood the sadness and loneliness of such old age keenly.
Silas’s grown up children and step children are due to attend the lunch, but still have their own concerns to attend to in the midst of worries over gifts and seating plans. Silas’s son Will, many years younger than his two elder sisters, neither of whom live in London, is recovering from Pneumonia in hospital, while his wife Coral, an actress is preparing to play Gertrude in Brighton. On the way home from visiting her husband in hospital, Coral undergoes a frightening experience, that she later feels unable to talk about to anyone, and is constantly berating herself for – her secrecy leading Will to allow his imagination to run wild. Silas’s eldest daughter Hannah lives in Yorkshire with her husband Julius, and lots of sheep, her daughter one of the family not invited to the lunch. Hannah’s not sure at all how Silas would react to his thirty-something granddaughter being unmarried and pregnant anyway. However what bothers Hannah even more is just what is it that Silas’s step-daughter Clare is planning? Clare the daughter of Silas’s second wife Bella is a particular favourite of Silas’s much to the irritation of other family members. Alice, the sister that comes between Hannah and Will is a world famous science Professor, travelling from Australia for the lunch having been attending a conference, she’s due to stay with Will and Coral.
“Since Bella’s death, Silas has become a traveller in time. He sits with a book on his lap – he doesn’t want to be seen as an old man, dreaming – and allows his mind to run free. He sees- feels –his past life as a vast, echoing tunnel, or underground cave. He journeys through it and around it, mining the seam of his personal history; hidden or half-forgotten events barely glimpsed out of the corner of an eye, a brief flash of light in the darkness, other dwelt upon, constantly revisited, permanently lit. He can traverse a decade in a matter of seconds or linger for days on a single moment, in a particular room.”
While Silas’s children and step children worry over birthday celebrations and family politics, Silas spends most of his time, where he now feels most comfortable – the past. Re-living his childhood, and then his love affair with his first wife the socially superior Effie, their marriage and the years with their two daughters before the Second World War disrupted everything, and Effie’s late pre-menopausal baby Will came along – which would lead eventually to her early death. Silas remembers his joys, his disappointments and the secrets he kept.
Nina Bawden is brilliant at exploring the intricacies of family life, and in The Ruffian on the Stair, she also explores, the poignancies, and pitfalls of extreme old age, injecting a little humour – and an awful lot of sympathetic understanding along the way. This novel was a real surprise, I had expected to really like it, but hadn’t expected it turn out a five star read which kept me up till 1.30 to finish.