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.