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A couple of years ago I read my first novel by Celia Fremlin – it was her second novel Uncle Paul I was captivated by her taut storytelling and the way the tension built slowly. I hadn’t meant to leave it so long before reading her best known novel The Hours Before Dawn of which I had heard such good things. I now want to read more by this author – who has been called the British Patricia Highsmith (I haven’t read that much Highsmith, but I’m not convinced that is entirely accurate.) Still, Fremlin is an excellent writer of suspense fiction, in which she weaves a psychological mystery around a domestic setting. This was such an enjoyable read, I began it one evening and finished it by the following afternoon, Fremlin certainly knows how to reel in her readers. Published in 1958, this novel went on to win the Edgar award in 1960.

Louise is a typical middle class 1950s housewife, she stays at home with the baby, delivers her other children to school, attends mother and baby clinics, and sometimes chats to the other neighbouring housewives. Her husband Mark is out at work all day, arriving home in time for dinner before depositing himself behind a newspaper – the children settled upstairs out of sight. However, Louise’s domestic life is not running as smoothly as everybody else’s seems to. Her youngest child, seven month old Michael barely stops crying, she is desperate to get some sleep. With two lively, chatty little girls also taking up her time and energy, Louise is exhausted, and she can expect little if any help from her husband.

“If you went on neglecting your own tastes like this, did you, in the end, cease to have any tastes? Cease, in fact, to be a person at all, and become merely a labour-saving gadget around the house?”

At night Michael screams for hours, Mark has complained of being disturbed and so Louise takes her inconsolable son into the scullery – the furthest away from her sleeping husband she can get – to try to soothe him, where she sits uncomfortably with her feet propped up on the mangle, her poor head lolling against the draining board.

Another member of the household who Louise feels must not be disturbed is Miss Brandon. Miss Brandon has recently taken the attic room the couple advertised in the newspaper. Mark and Louise know little about her, save that she is a teacher at the grammar school with an interest in classical studies. There is something a little mysterious about her, Mark feels he might have seen her somewhere before – and Louise feels she recognises the large blue suitcase that sits on top of the wardrobe.

“Louise was aware of a queer, lurching giddiness. When – where – had she thought these things before? Where had she seen that suitcase – or one the very double of it – and had found herself thinking, exactly as she was thinking now: How out of place that is! Fancy seeing a suitcase like that here, of all places.”

One day, Louise and her mother in law Mrs Henderson go into Miss Brandon’s room to retrieve some books, having been told earlier that Miss Brandon would be out all day, find her sat silently by the window – watching. Louise starts to have vague unspecified doubts about her lodger, Mark dismisses her worries, he shares some of Miss Brandon’s interests and Louise has noticed they seem to get on quite well.

Harried daily by the needs of her children, exhausted beyond all bearing – Louise fears she may not be thinking entirely rationally, but she can’t shake the feeling that something isn’t right at all about Miss Brandon. Louise’s friend from the baby clinic Mrs Hooper has taken to off loading her children on to Louise whenever she needs, Louise is hopeless at saying no. Mrs Hooper rarely returns the favour. Mrs Hooper’s son Tony is fascinated by spies – and having been left in charge of Louise’s children for a while by his negligently casual mother – later chats innocently to Louise about the spy in her house, revealing that he spotted the lodger going through Mark’s desk. Is it just a case of a nosy lodger – or is there really something more sinister going on – and will anyone believe her? Between them all the children notice other things, and their chatter feeds into Louise’s doubts. A terrifying incident late one night, with Michael screaming the house down, shakes Louise’s confidence in herself – and seems to convince Mark – and her curtain twitching neighbours that there is something wrong with Louise’s nerves.  

There are several things that Fremlin does really well. We see everything from Louise’s perspective, and the reader is never sure how reliable her view of things is. She portrays the world of an exhausted young mother to perfection, this is no advertisement for 1950s domestic harmony, and the reader feels Louise’s frustrated exhaustion as her baby continues to scream throughout the night. Gradually, Fremlin winds up the tension creating a wonderfully suspenseful atmosphere throughout the novel. None of this detracts from some excellent characterisation – from the annoying Mrs Hooper and her spy obsessed son to Louise’s perfectly groomed mother-in-law – who prefers to keep her grandchildren at a distance, Fremlin uses a sharp and observant eye.

The Hours Before Dawn is a hugely compelling psychological mystery that becomes increasing difficult to put down. I have discovered that some of her novels and story collections are available in paperback and e-book from Faber and Faber. I shall certainly be investigating some of these at a later date.

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uncle paul

I was drawn to read Uncle Paul, the second published novel by Celia Fremlin, for the simple reason that it intrigued me, and I hadn’t ever seen it reviewed by anyone else. This is my first novel by her (I hadn’t realised she had written so many). Celia Fremlin is best known for her first novel The Hours before Dawn, which I have, but have not yet got around to reading. My physical copy of that book is buried somewhere at the back of the bookcase and is hard to get at. Uncle Paul was much easier to get at, as it was simply on my kindle.

I really enjoyed this novel – it is an excellent suspense novel of fear and paranoia – though not overly so – most of the time Fremlin lulls us into a false sense of security. The suspense loving reader might well start to wonder where the suspense will come from. In this I think Fremlin is rather clever – she doesn’t over do the menace – the reader instead begins to get swept away by the fairly straightforward story of three sisters on holiday – domestic matters, odd characters they meet, fortune tellers, days on the beach. However, lurking just beneath the surface, is the possibility that something much darker might be happening, or about to happen. Gradually the reader starts to ask questions, as the tension builds in the final fifty pages or so to a brilliant heart-stopping conclusion.

“IT IS RARE for any catastrophe to seem like a catastrophe right at the very beginning. Nearly always, in its early stages, it seems more like a nuisance; just one more of those tiresome interruptions which come so provokingly just when life is going smoothly and pleasantly.”

Meg is the youngest of three sisters – though she has been forced to assume the role of grown-up on lots of occasions. Meg is living her own life in London, a flat, a new boyfriend – when she gets an anxious call from her older sister Isabel.

Meg and Isabel have a much older half-sister Mildred – she is at least twenty years their senior – and spent some time bringing them up when Meg and Isabel were very young. Mildred is now married to a wealthy man, and Isabel about six years older than Meg – has recently re-married, providing her two young sons with a new step-father.

Isabel tells Meg that Mildred has left her husband (again!) and run off to “the cottage” – a cottage Mildred once spent her honeymoon with another man she believed herself to have married years earlier when Meg and Isabel were still children. Paul (Uncle Paul to Meg and Isabel) turned out to have entered into that marriage with Mildred bigamously – only after her money – he had assumed a new identity and was wanted for murder. Mildred is now convinced that Paul’s time is up – he will be out of prison and coming to get her. Isabel is worried and persuades Meg to join her and the children at the caravan site they are holidaying in near to the cottage and persuade Mildred to leave.

Meg thinks Isabel is panicking about nothing – and is more than a little irritated with her sisters – an irritation she conveys in no uncertain terms to her boyfriend Freddy (so laid back he’s horizontal – though he seems happy to lap up the complicated details). Still, Meg feels unable to leave them to it – Isabel is one of life’s worriers anyway – frequently to be found with a frown on her face over some minor domestic issue. So off Meg pops – initially for the weekend – though it turns into an entire week – to calm Isabel down and persuade Mildred that staying in a tiny, fairly isolated, dilapidated cottage with no telephone or electricity – which is likely to bring back some unpleasant memories isn’t a very good idea.

“Could one recognise a person’s steps with such certainty? With the strange omnipotence of fear, Meg seemed able to hold back time itself while she pondered; and during those advancing seconds, as the steps grew louder, more purposeful, she seemed able to meditate in an almost leisurely manner the subject of the recognition of footsteps.”

Meg stays with Isabel and the children at the caravan – as Isabel’s husband Philip has had to stay in London for work. Meg barely knows her new brother-in-law only having seen him briefly at the wedding, he is quite a bit older than Isabel and seems to have very particular ideas about the upbringing of children – something else for Isabel to worry about. Meg is a little concerned about how nervous Isabel is about how her husband will react to certain things. Just after Meg arrives at the caravan and starts settling in, playing with her nephews – Freddy suddenly appears – which rather surprises everyone. He listens to all Meg’s stories of Uncle Paul – and using his well-practised charm insinuates himself easily into the lives of the holiday makers.

Visiting Mildred at the cottage, and hearing tales of footsteps walking around the cottage at night, Isabel and Meg manage to persuade Mildred to take a room at a hotel in the nearby seaside town. Meg is still convinced there is nothing to worry about, so when Isabel’s husband arrives to stay at the caravan, Meg is squeezed out – and decides to stay in the cottage by herself.

“Then, slowly, she began to understand. Mildred, as she sat so quietly, had not exactly been doing nothing. She had been listening; listening with a terrible intensity, and every slight movement of Meg’s pages had rasped intolerably across the blank canvas of the silence on which her attention was so dreadfully fixed. She must be imagining footsteps again, out on the cinder track. And yet, something in Mildred’s pose seemed to suggest that she was listening for something at closer quarters than that; something in the cottage itself … something in one of the upstairs rooms…”

At the hotel there are all sorts of colourful characters, including a mother and her very precocious son Cedric (brilliantly drawn), an old Captain and a fussy old spinster. As Meg’s nights at the cottage start to become increasingly uncomfortable – she begins to ask herself questions about Paul, and some of the people around her, and just how much she knows about them.

Fremlin, really ratchets up the tension in the final part of the novel – and the ending was (for me at least) superbly surprising and clever.

celia fremlin

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