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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Myers’

A Well Full of Leaves is one of the two most recently published books by Persephone, and I was lucky to receive this one for my birthday from Liz. It has been out of print for decades, the author herself died prematurely in 1947. The piece on the Persephone website about this novel seems to suggest that it may be a book that will divide readers. I can see why that might be, I enjoyed it – though I feel enjoyed is the wrong word, as there is a lot of unhappiness here. I would say don’t be put off by the Kirkus review that is pasted into the description of the novel on Goodreads. This is a novel that is very beautifully written, and while some readers may dislike the long descriptive passages, others will relish the prose.

This is the story of a childhood, the growth of four siblings to maturity following their bleak and terrible childhood. Narrated by Laura Valley, the third of four siblings, as the novel opens she is thirteen, she has an older sister Anda, an older brother Robert and a younger brother Steve. They live in a horrible little house, in a horrible street with fairly horrible parents. Their father is mainly pathetic, he bets on the horses and loses, drinks a lot, and has been completley dominated by his terrible, bullying wife. Their mother is possibly the worst mother I have come across in fiction, she is cruel, spiteful and uncaring. She casts a long shadow over the inhabitants of that house, in which no one is ever very happy.

“It isn’t everyone who has a mother like ours. She was a specialist whose specialities never touched the kind, the gentle, or the constructive. She was at her best when she was toppling the entire scene. All her dislike of us and the world in general was extended into whatever she was doing. Under her hands soapsuds were angry, clothes sneered, steam menaced, crockery raved.”

Her greatest loathing is directed at Steve the youngest. At just eleven, he is already shaping up to be a great Greek scholar, winning a scholarship for the Grammar school. Laura is determined that he will continue his education, and make it to the university in a few years’ time. Robert has been forced to leave school at fourteen, and is working as a clerk, this despite his enormous fascination for history which continues despite his having left school. Anda the eldest at sixteen, is a traffic stopping beauty, and she has no intention of staying in that house much longer.

Laura has her own unique way of surviving the misery of her surroundings. She has a wonderful capacity to see outside of herself – to see beauty in the smallest of things – to enjoy the rain or the wind or the sound of a bird. Laura’s love of nature saves her – though reader beware, this is no adult fairy-tale.

“The wind was not just a casual noise to be swallowed up and forgotten with the other noises of the street. It had risen in the thin blown-glass of waves meeting a far-off shore; it had travelled from beaches where the sea slid forward and fled back again, grinding the shells to sand; this wind had boomed in slippery caves with hanging seaweeds for aeolian harps; it had blown across wild heaths setting tatted winter weeds jigging, careered through copses and wild-wood and quiet country cemeteries where tombstones listened to it impassively in the moonlight; it reached the towns, roaring round the theatres and churches, past shut shops where quails and shrimps and sheep’s brains and forced strawberries were all quietly waiting to be bought and devoured and so become the blood and thoughts of men and women. And it came at last to shabby streets like our own, shrieking aghast through leagues of brick and hovels, whipping the waters of lonely, warehouse-enclosed canals into long stiff ridges of black cream, and finally going off blustering and spent to the hills beyond the town.”

It is in these descriptions and observations of the natural world that Myers is at her very best. She reminds us that even in the humblest of streets the same gentle breeze may blow as over any green field – that a bird, or a blade of grass, a wildflower can sometimes be enough to lift the spirits.

Anda escapes the house for life with a kindly artist, many years her senior, though the relationship appears to be platonic. Later, she marries into aristocracy, and enters London society. Steve’s hopes of continuing his education are thwarted by his vile mother, who simply can’t allow any of her children even a modicum of happiness. Steve accidentally finds the world of the theatre, and by the time he is in his early twenties he is a huge success. Laura stays at home long enough to care for her father in his last illness, as she can’t bear to leave him to her mother’s not so tender mercies. Then she moves in with Steve, and falls in love with a married playwright that Steve introduces her to. Steve is the most damaged of the Valley siblings, his relationships with those around him anything but healthy, women adore him, but he uses them, despising them, throwing them aside. He can’t leave the past behind, and carries his bitterness with him every day. As the years pass, Laura becomes the only person that Steve can tolerate.

I think the reader probably knows early on that there are no happy endings here, Myers shows us how impossible it is to rectify the damage of a terrible childhood. I won’t say any more than that because of spoilers.

I am glad that Persephone brought this back into print, I know Elizabeth Myers wrote other books too, but it does seem she disappeared without trace.

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