Nina Bawden’s 1983 novel The Ice House is a subtle exploration of friendship, deception and betrayal. There are four sections to this short, psychologically astute novel; friendship, marriage, love and the Ice house, which charts the changing nature of a friendship over the course of more than thirty years. I don’t think this is the best of the Bawden novels that I have read, although I liked it immensely. She does seem to be a writer who divides opinion – but there is a lot to admire in these portrayals of marriage and friendship. I feel as if I often like her novels rather more than other reviewers – I like writers who are coolly observant, and so Bawden’s style suits my tastes exactly.
“That summer Saturday in 1951, Daisy Brown aged fifteen, going to tea with Ruth Perkin, also aged fifteen had an unusual sense of adventure.”
At fifteen, Daisy and Ruth are uneasy friends. When Daisy receives an unexpected invitation to Ruth’s house for tea, she is excited to cross the threshold of a house no one else has been invited to before. Ruth Perkin’s family are wealthy, their house a turreted mock-baronial mansion behind tall gates, it also boasts an old ice house in the grounds. Ruth; an only child, appears cosseted by an over anxious mother, rarely ventures to the houses of her friends, she is quiet and slightly secretive about her home life. Daisy Brown comes from a relaxed loving home, a home life she takes a little for granted as no doubt, we all do at that age. Daisy is therefore shocked, and deeply disturbed by the realities of Ruth’s family life. On the day Daisy visits Ruth and her parents, she encounters the war-damaged harshly, abusive Captain Perkins, and sees for herself where Ruth’s silence and reticence comes from, recognising her need to escape into her passion for dress-making.
“Captain Perkin said, ‘I daresay you have lots of boyfriends, Daisy,’ and she was conscious that her last year’s summer dress was too tight across the chest. Blushing slightly, she owned to ‘quite a few’, adding, ‘My mother says there is safety in numbers.’ She rolled her eyes flirtatiously at Captain Perkin. She couldn’t help it. Flirting was as natural to Daisy as breathing. ‘I hope your mother knows what she is doing,’ Captain Perkin said. ‘I am careful with Ruth. But I have seen a bit of the world, you understand. I know what men are, with ripe young girls.’ He spluttered as he laughed, as if his mouth was full of juice. And, with a gloating emphasis, ‘I know what girls are, come to that!’ His eyes were on her breasts.”
The experience of that day unites the girls further, and leads to a friendship which lasts well into middle age. Thirty years after that afternoon at the Perkin’s house, Daisy and Ruth are still best friends; they are married to Luke and Joe respectively who are also best friends. The two families live very near to one another, and their teenage children are great friends too. When Daisy’s husband is killed suddenly in a motorway accident, the truths that Ruth was so certain of are severely disrupted. Daisy reveals that she had been bored by her marriage, that things were far from perfect. For Daisy nothing can fully replicate or better the love and security she experienced growing up with her parents and brother. Ruth is starting to feel a little insecure, her husband Joe has been becoming more and more distant, and in his grief over his friend’s death he is hard to reach. Ruth begins to suspect that her husband may be keeping something from her, fearing he may even have betrayed her. In middle-age Daisy is a larger, more gregarious woman than Ruth, and Ruth appears diminished at times by the sheer force of Daisy’s personality. Ruth has been happily fulfilled by her successful seamstress business, but when her faith in Joe is shaken, she is forced back to the realities of her childhood, and the betrayal she endured at the hands of her father.
Bawden’s characters are generally not very warm, but she explores their complexities with subtlety and understanding that fleshes out their entire worlds, their pasts and futures are instantly believable. The men in this novel are portrayed as pathetic or predatory, or a mixture of the two; the women by comparison are strong even in their apparent weakness. I am reminded a little of Elizabeth Taylor whose peripheral characters are always as well executed and deftly explored as her central characters, here Bawden’s minor characters are just as superbly drawn. One of my favourite characters from this novel, Daisy’s cynical, ageing mother-in-law Lady Stella Brett, who has recently befriended an old man she met in some nearby gardens, entertaining him to breakfast.
“Stella loomed over her. She smelled of old clothes. She said ‘Do you want tea? Walter had the last of the coffee. Otherwise there is whiskey, or some rather unpleasant sweet sherry. I don’t know where it came from. One of the boys brought it, probably. It isn’t my tipple.
Ruth shook her head. Who was Walter? The last thing she wanted was alcohol. But Stella was already pouring whiskey into two tumblers. She gave one to Ruth. ‘Drink up, you look a bit peaky.”
I am trying hard not to give away spoilers here – however there are things in The Ice House which become fairly obvious to the reader and when fully revealed come as no surprise – I think that is intentional – the reader is instantly ‘in on’ the secret.
Nina Bawden is particularly adept at showing the darker sides of human nature, her novels generally peter out gently rather than with a melodramatic flourish – some readers call it anti-climactic, I tend to think of it as being more like real life.