Posts Tagged ‘Ruth Thomas’

It feels like a long time since I read The Snow and the Works on the Northern Line, but it really isn’t all that long, but a lot has happened since I first picked it up. I read this book the week I moved from my old house to my new flat. I chose it because I thought it would be an undemanding read, without being too light. Originally I bought it for the title – I rather like these quirky kind of titles, they always rather cleverly make me want to read the book. In many ways this book really hit the spot – it was exactly the right kind of book for a crazy, tiring, week of upheaval. It has an engaging, witty, often sarcastic narrator and is generally well written – there was nothing about the book I didn’t like really, and yet, it was ever so slightly underwhelming. That may have been my fault – as it was a week of various distractions and slow reading days.

Sybil is the narrator of the novel – and I really liked her slightly weary, sarcastic tone, there are some very funny moments and some deliciously wry observations. There is a lot of subtlety in the writing, which is definitely something I enjoy, so I felt I should have loved it more.

Sybil works at The Royal Institute of Prehistorical studies in London – where she is happy enough in her work. Her life is on a fairly even keel – living with her boyfriend Simon. So, Sybil is utterly dismayed when her old adversary and former university tutor is appointed as Head of Trustees. Helen Hansen is only a few years older than Sybil, glamourous, bossy and with some academic success already under her belt. She had tried to have Sybil’s degree downgraded, but was out voted by her senior tutors. Rather humiliatingly, Sybil has an accident while ice skating with Simon, right in front of Helen – leaving Sybil with a nasty bump on the head. Helen wastes little time in seducing Simon and taking him for herself, leaving Sybil, betrayed, broken hearted and needing to find a new home – all while having to put up with Helen at work.

In an attempt to start to heal herself, and at the suggestion of her friend Jane, Sybil joins a poetry class at the library. The class begin with haiku – and Sybil takes her notebook around with her – jotting down odd little haikus, while wondering why on earth she has joined a poetry class. Feeling her lack of poetical knowledge, she goes to the library to look some up for herself. Even here, Ruth Thomas’s observations are delightfully wry.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to be here for long.’ ‘The lending desk closes in five,’ she said. And she wheeled on towards a door with a poster on it saying Enter a World Of Adventure, and disappeared through it. For a while I couldn’t locate the Poetry shelves at all. I walked past Pottery and Ceramics, past Parenting Skills, Personal Development, Philosophy, Psychology and Pet Care, but there was no Poetry. I walked past an old man sitting beside a shelf that said Withdrawn Fiction: 10p, and a big woman in Scholl sandals and beige socks, reading a book called Bring Me My Arrows of Desire. I walked past a carousel displaying off-the-peg reading glasses – See Clearly Again for only £3.99! said a sign – a claim which seemed improbable to me, like one of Jesus’s miracles. Pinned to a cork noticeboard beside the carousel was another poster I hadn’t noticed the last time I’d gone there. It said: THE WORLD ENDS TOMORROW! (according to Nostradamus) So please make sure you return your overdue books”

Helen is a fairly poisonous character – and the reader is always going to be team Sybil all the way, Ruth Thomas manages to make Helen absolutely hateful, in a kind of passive, aggressive way almost immediately – honestly I wanted to slap her. It soon becomes apparent that Helen is perhaps not quite the brilliant, academic that everyone thinks, and Sybil becomes determined to expose her for the fake that she is – no matter what. It also becomes apparent that all is not well with Sybil – but has anyone noticed? She gets on well enough with her other colleagues, but Sybil feels all alone with her theories about Helen, swamped by the misery of Helen and Simon’s betrayal.

“I could never quite work Raglan out. He was a big-voiced, big-opinioned man, but also he could be very shy. He was old school but he also seemed to have a peculiar respect for all Helen’s dire money-generating plans, and had now even appointed her as the Institutes new Chair of Trustees. So I couldn’t start condemning her in front of him…”

I enjoyed the workplace setting of The Royal Institute of Prehistorical studies – where poor Sybil gets a little overwhelmed working on the index of a book that the lovely, gentle, middle aged (I imagined slightly dusty) academic Raglan has been working on, only now Helen has muscled in, adding a chapter and is being named as co-author. It all rather sticks in Sybil’s craw.

Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and I would definitely consider reading this author again. It perfectly portrays the devastation that can come with the end of a relationship, but the backdrop of The Royal Institute of Prehistorical Studies just makes it that little bit more interesting.

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