The first of a trilogy, this book is a bildungsroman following Claud, whom we first encounter as a young English boy living in Bruges just after the first world war with his father, an author of cheap detective fiction and his father's mistress, the wonderful Helena. In four almost equally long parts, he moves to London, then to Paris and finally to Bruges again, falling in unrequited and requited love.
It is written in the past tense till the last chapter which is framed by the present tense.
The story is a chronicle of the time, It reflects on the roaring 20s and the ominous 30s: Claud is a part-time art critic for fringe and later more mainstream magazines: as such he is on the fringes of an artistic set whilst being firmly grounded by his full-time occupation as an officer of an insurance and banking company. This semi-outsider status is tweaked by his being the childhood friend of a singer and dancer who becomes a star. It is an interesting perspective, the middle-class lad who needs to work for his living: he has a degree of independent income thanks to his legacy, his schooling moves from independent school to grammar school, he has to work for his living but in a respectable job, he lives in London flats.
I think its fundamental purpose is as a portrait of a society in which divorce was essentially unacceptable forcing some people to live unconventional lives and others to be unhappy.
The plot is conventional and predictable. Unlike Claud's father's books there is little excitement. The saving grace is the wonderful character of Helena: a passionate mistress and temperamental step-mother but even she matures and mellows into a something quite conventional.
It is well written and there are some great moments:
- "I had possessed one of those frightening sopranos that most people admire and I detest, a voice pure enough, high enough, inhuman enough to crack a tumbler." (1.1)
- "There was one girl without eyebrows who looked as if she would dance, were she not at death’s door" (1.4)
- "Sometimes I hungered for her as I hungered for rich foods certain to make me sick." (2.1)
- "I longed for Helena, who had treated me like dirt, because she was unsolid, unloving and rich, and because she made me laugh." (2.1)
- "She walked as if in contempt of alien soil" (2.1)
- "It was plain that Hampstead was too small for Helena. A sudden move and she would put her head through the roof of the sky, knock down a police-station or a public baths with her elbow, demolish the tube station with her foot." (2.1)
- “'I’m glad to do anything for Richard’s wife,' said Uncle as if it were a one-line part in a play and he were having difficulty with it." (2.1)
- "By the time we had finished the tea, the toast, and a raspberry sponge with cream spread over the jam, I was as settled as a cat let in out of the rain." (2.1)
- "I thought how odd it was that to nearly every pair of girls there was one pretty and one plain, one leader and one led, one the voice and one the echo." (2.1)
- "He liked to lay the board flat on his knees and to bend right over it so that his nose nearly touched the paper; a trick, I have always thought, that accounts for the curious effect of foreshortening noticeable in all his work." (2.3)
- "We can close our eyes as we like to the world, but the world will touch us, for as much as we shut our doors to the winter the wind freezes, and as much as we draw our blinds against the summer the sun bleaches and burns, and as much as we draw our curtains to the night the darkness is about us." (2.4)
- "Till 1930 people talked about the last war; after 1930 they talked about the next." (3.1)
- "Waking suddenly from sleep to find dawn like a watching ghost in the room, I slid delicately from the sheets and went to the window." (3.3)
- "Coming out into a morning clean after rain, we walked along pavements full of the bright sky." (4.1)
- "Think of a blinded ghost! It would bump into you." (4.3)
- "It seems to me absurd that we should expect another life, for that expectation insists that we have no purpose in this one. We change the world for a new generation and we die. Isn’t that a big enough thing to do, to change the world a little?" (4.3)
- "We may say that we are not wasted utterly, because our flesh and bones fertilize new soil; but good God, is that all man is fitted for? To be manure?" (4.3)
- "Yet I wish I believed, I wish I had the confidence of Helena, who has planned precisely what she will say to Father when she meets him in Heaven." (4.3)
- "It seems a vain task, like putting In Memoriam notices in the newspapers; for whom are those notices meant? The dead, we presume, have no morning papers and it is no business of the living how much we may or may not remember. " (4.4)
I suppose it is valuable as a picture of the interwar years but this novel didn't enthral and I doubt I shall attempt the others in the trilogy. If you want to read PHJ at her best, try The Unspeakable Skipton, a much livelier story.
|This review was written by |
the author of Motherdarling