Mary Hocking reading week is not too far away now – just a little over a month and so in picking up March House I have got myself nicely in the mood.
This is a novel which took me by surprise at times, I began it fully expecting to enjoy it well enough, but possibly not expecting as much from it as some of the other Hocking novels I have read. In fact I think this is rather a clever novel; there is a subtlety in this novel, and an unexpected dream like quality, in which Hocking manages to reproduce in the reader, the fragile uncertainty of the central character. March House even comes in for a brief mention in this article by Anita Brookner about Hocking’s novel Letters from Constance – in which Brookner describes Hocking as old fashioned and charming ( I am not overly keen on this description however it’s good to see she was appreciated by one such as Brookner).
Ruth is a young woman – actually about thirty – who having left school determined not to go to university – has spent the time since then at the remote home she grew up in with her parents. Ruth’s mother has just died, the novel opens at her funeral, for which Ruth has chosen not to dress in black.
March House the psychiatric clinic where Ruth works as a secretary seems to have lost its way. It is now little more than a disparate group of professionals clinging to the debris of its former glory. The clinic having undergone reductions in their staffing levels, now await the arrival of a new psychiatrist, Dr Laver. Mrs Libnitz, a former refugee is the receptionist, she hates the clinical psychologist Iris Bailey – simply because she needs someone to hate – Di Brady the voluptuous part-time nurse has her own troubles, two kids by one man, her most recent boyfriend has just left her, while Douglas the Psychiatric nurse has dumped his wife and kids for Eddie, who he has moved into the accommodation suite above the clinic. Suddenly into their midst arrives Dr Laver, almost out of nowhere, he appears, flamboyant, rather crass and unethical. From the first there is something very definitely disturbing about Dr Laver, and the way he hones in on Ruth and her colleagues, determined to prove the genius of which he is convinced.
“A voice now proclaimed dramatically, ‘Oh, to be in England now that April’s there!’
He was standing in the doorway, a short, square man with bright ginger hair and beard. He was wearing a striped blue suit with a hectic pink shirt and reminded me of the buskers who used to entertain the queues at the county agricultural show. All he needed was a straw hat. Mrs Libnitz eyed him with disfavour and said ‘This is March.’ “
Ruth’s world is rocked by Dr Laver’s arrival, suddenly swamped by memories of the past, she is faced with truth of her parents as individuals her mother’s dissatisfaction, and the memory of her own fear that her mother might disappear one day. Now the memories of her happy childhood become skewed, revealing a world that only now she begins to see for what it was. Meanwhile, Ruth’s father is drawing closer to Eleanor, Ruth’s mother’s sister, Ruth’s new altered vision of her father as being more than merely her father, leading her to re-evaluate her own life.
Here Mary Hocking has created a group of interesting characters, from Ruth herself and her clinic colleagues, to the mysterious, sinister Dr Laver, Miss Maud a local old lady whose eccentricities intrigue Ruth. Miss Maud, the owner of Mill House, was my favourite character, a seemingly slightly dotty old woman whose family had lived in the area for a long time; she has her own memories of Ruth’s mother –walking across the fields with a local farmer.
As Dr Laver wheedles his way further into Ruth’s fragile mind, there are moments when she is unsure of what is real and what is a product of her own imagination. In the exploration of these characters Mary Hocking shows that she had a quite deep understanding of some aspects of psychology as she deftly explores their motivations.
“Nowadays, people don’t have private lives, they just sit in front of television congratulating themselves that, since they don’t do anything, nothing can ever happen to them. “Where did it get him?” they ask, looking at a man who has lost an empire.’ She was silent for a moment, and then she said, ‘I have written to the Shah and told him that if he would like to stay here he would be welcome.’
‘Do you think he will come?’ I asked nervously trying to keep my eyes from the big double bed with its lace coverlet and faded silk cushions.
‘I hope so, He would be safe; no one would ever know that he was here’”
There is wry humour here too, the world of March House feels very authentic, even in its strangeness, with the petty anxieties of the people working there and the small delusions of the people who come as patients. As Ruth’s world changes, she reaches out to her cousin, an independent woman living in London, and finally it begins to appear that Ruth might have choices in life after all.