Young Irish Catholic Robert Shannon from Dublin is brought to 'Levenford', a fictional Scottish, largely Presbyterian town, near Ben Lomond and the Clyde. Dumbarton where Cronin spent his early years, is a town where the River Leven meets the Clyde. 'Levenford' is also the town that Hatter's Castle (Cronin's first novel) is set in and Robert's new Papa (actually his grandfather) is a similarly stingy character to Brodie, the hat-shop owner of the title. The major influence on young Robbie's life is his great Grandfather ("Grandpa") who, in total contrast to the rest of the dour household, is a womaniser (so far as his ageing flesh will allow him) and a drunkard (when he has the funds) and a great storyteller (or liar). Robbie, the brightest in his class at school, wants to be a scientist but the family finances can't (or won't) afford to pay for his education. Can he win a scholarship? Will his dreams come true? Or will the poverty of everyday life grind him into conformity?
Published in 1944, this novel spent 17 weeks in the New York Times best-seller lists in 1945 and was made into a successful film. It feels quite autobiographical. It is a well written book and the characters or Grandpa and Grandma, Papa and Mama and Murdoch are beautifully drawn.
It is brilliantly realistic. He achieves verisimilitude with a host of minor details. I particularly enjoyed the reference to "that splendid beverage, sustainer of my youth, Barr's Iron Brew" (3.7_
The second sentence is "I was inclined to trust Mama, whom, until today, I had never seen before." That's not a bad hook!
Other great moments:
- "Your tear-bag seems precious near your eye." (Part 1, Chapter 1)
- "A bottle of delicious yellow aerated water named Iron Brew, with a label showing a strong man in a leopardskin lifting dumb-bells of tremendous weight." (1.4) This dates this scene to after 1899 and before 1946 when the name was changed to Irn-Bru.
- "I have nothing against the Catholics, except maybe their Popes. ... some of those Borgias, with their poisoned rings and sichlike, were not quite the clean potato." (1.11)
- "Like most weak men, he attached the utmost importance to not changing his mind." (2.6)
- "I wanted to be like Julius Caesar and Napoleon. But I was still myself." (2.6)
- "my body lies helpless, as in a catalepsy, waiting for the first streaks of light beneath the blind that will usher me again to the tyranny of ambition." (2. 9)
- "Sophie, in the scullery, washed the dishes with such complete absence of noise that one could almost hear the straining of her ear drums." (3.3)
- "Life's an awful business." (3.3)
- "Suddenly I caught sight of a little peep-hole which some mischievous passenger had cut in the wood of the dividing partition. Crushed, overwhelmed by despondency and horror, I rose nevertheless, impelled by nameless curiosity, and out my eye to the little hole. But the next compartment was empty, quite empty too." (3.4)
- "Do you remember when we once discussed those creatures who live five miles down in the ocean, feeling their way, without eyes, in the blackness ... a sort of eternal night ... only poccasionally a faint phosphorescent gleam? And if they're brought up, nearer the light of day, they simply explode. That's us, in our relation to God." (3.5)
- "The future rose before me like a wall." (3.7)
A well-written easy-to-read semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel set in the early 1900s with a dourly realistic setting. September 2020; 287 pages
Other great books by this novelist:
- Hatter's Castle, also set in Levenford about a stingy patriarch, Cronin's first book
- The Citadel, about the career of a young idealistic doctor, regarded by many as his best, also regarded as the book that launched the British National Health Service
- The Keys of the Kingdom, for me Cronin's masterpiece, about a self-effacing missionary in China