In several Mary Hocking novels that I have read, Hocking’s concerns seem to be to explore the issue of mental health, it is one of her more serious concerns that her popular novels like the Fairly family trilogy are less representative of. The Mind Has Mountains is certainly one of Hocking’s more serious and ambitious works, set against the backdrop of extreme weather conditions and the uncertainty of county council restructuring.
Tom Norris and his wife Isobel live in a large house in a small Sussex village, Isobel stays in the village with her charity work, the WI and her garden while Tom leaves each day to do battle in the County Hall of South Sussex.
“Although it was only late September there was a rasp in the air this evening that was not entirely due to woodsmoke rising from a bonfire. Tom Norris, who had intended to go for a walk by the river, turned back at the end of the village street. There were only a few cottages in the street, most of the larger houses stood farther back at the end of cart tracks which their owners, who were not hospitable folk, had made no attempt to surface. There was no one about in the street. The bus service had been cut off several years ago and since then the village had reverted to the isolation it had known most of the years since Doomsday.”
Tom is the Assistant Education Officer for South Sussex, but now as well the usual office politics, the stresses and strains of life in local government, Tom and his colleagues are threatened by the boundaries commission, who are seeking to get rid of South Sussex county council parcelling up its various parts between the East and West Sussex.
In his spare time, Tom is a writer of children’s books, and his imagination is fuelled by the landscape around him, and the tantalising idea that the wolf could return to the hills.
In late autumn, the weather takes a turn, and soon the country is hit by some of the worst snow blizzards in living memory. Some days people can’t get to work, other days they are practically stranded. Hocking’s descriptions of landscape are always brilliant, her novels are strongly rooted in the England that she knew – whether that was War time London or the Sussex countryside of the 1990’s or county council offices of the 1970s – her world is wonderfully recognisable. She fills her canvas with some pretty odd characters, putting them in often bizarre situations – I’ve noticed this in one or two other Hocking novels – though it isn’t common to all. The Mind has Mountains in another novel which at times is slightly reminiscent of Iris Murdoch.
Norma Rossiter, head of the special schools section is wonderfully eccentric, dressed for a school visit with Tom, in a dunce’s cap and purple cloak. The two end up chasing papers around country lanes and Norma ends up sat in the middle of cows in a field while her confidential documents are scattered to the winds.
“Norma Rossiter was sitting on the bench by the front door when Tom got out of the lift. She was wearing a purple cloak with an enormous long-haired fur collar, a green dunce’s cap with a very high steeple with an orange plume, and boots and gloves of a matching green. It was the sort of outfit Marlene Dietrich could have carried off, and it required impeccable make-up. Norma’s make-up, though generous, had been hastily applied and the line of the mouth was crooked; the whole impression was of an actress who, having made a good attacking start with a part has lost her nerve midway through the action.”
County Hall is a place of grey men, it is hard to distinguish between Chief Education Officer Mather and record keeper Marsden, Phillimore – a war veteran seems stuck in the past. There are several bizarre incidents among the people who work at County Hall – which mirror the turmoil taking place within the minds of several characters – a blackout on the stairs, a peculiar strong room incident – as well as various petty squabbles and tensions.
Naturally there’s an air of uncertainty in the offices of the county council. Among this group of odd, unhappy people – each nursing their own ambitions and anxieties Tom is often seen as a calm, safe pair of hands. Tom, however is entering his own time of crisis – the lines between what is real and what is not becoming blurred and confused. He is looking for his purpose in life, trying to hold things together in meetings – while in private his mind has started to play tricks on him.
Into his office, Tom agrees to take Phoebe Huber, who has made herself mysteriously unpopular among her colleagues in her previous office. Tom’s decision to appoint Phoebe does not go down too well – and the mood at the County Hall worsens. Tom can’t help but be fascinated by Phoebe; a strangely drawn character – she has a peculiar presence and yet remains for us and for Tom oddly enigmatic. He feels sorry for her, and allows himself to get drawn into her slightly peculiar life in the village of Pendlecombe, with her cats and the memory of her aunt. Phoebe appears a meek, lank haired young woman, a little sad, unpopular, a square peg in a round hole, yet she is also oddly subversive. Tom’s world becomes more uncertain and frightening as he spends more time with her.
The Mind has Mountains is a fascinating novel, memorable and thought provoking. Some of the committee meeting sections are a little too realistically dull – though there’s some brilliant set pieces, which liven things up considerably. I have to say though, that I don’t know another writer who writes about the everyday world of local councils and government offices with the authenticity that Mary Hocking does. It was a world she knew well from the inside and it shows.
I have been talking about this book with friends on my Mary Hocking readers Facebook group – which you can find here. Some of us are planning to read He who Plays the King – Mary Hocking’s historical novel at the end of January. I am not doing a big read-a-long thing – steering clear of those – but if any Hocking fans want to join us you would be welcome.