22 January 2014

The Ice House by Nina Bawden

This book has been on my shelves for quite some time and judging by the pounds sterling price written in pencil on the first page, bought during a trip to Charing Cross Road.  I have no idea why it called to me last week other than perhaps it was a chance to discover what Bawden's writing style is all about.  First published in 1983, my green-spine Virago paperback was reprinted ten years later.  The pages have begun to yellow but the tightness of the spine leads me to believe it had never been read.  Such a shame.  It's a difficult story to put a label on given its mixture of kitchen drama, mysterious turns, London to Egypt travel adventure with a louche character thrown in for good measure but it was certainly entertaining.

The story begins in 1951 with two teenage friends getting together for tea.  Daisy comes from a lively household where the atmosphere is quite relaxed while in Ruth's case things are very much the opposite.  By way of explanation for her father's brutally strict parenting style she tells Daisy about his years spent as a prisoner of war in Japan.  Mrs Perkins is constantly walking on eggshells which explains why invitations or dinner parties at their house are as rare as hen's teeth.  When Ruth is asked to pick some strawberries for her guest but the gardener gladly takes up the task, Ruth is horrifically set upon by her enraged father for not following instructions...all in plain view of Daisy.

The book then moves on to its second section in which the two friends are now married and living on the same street.  This time it's Daisy facing turmoil and crisis when her husband is found dead, the victim of a possible hit and run.  When the pieces are put together it becomes clear that this was no accident but a suicide and Daisy, rather than crumble in grief, holds up her glass for yet another top up of wine.  Surrounded by friends and family she lets loose a volley of derogatory names for her deceased husband which leaves everyone flabbergasted.  Feeling fragile, Ruth turns to her husband for comfort but he is less than compliant.  When prodded by his wife, Joe admits there is someone else he has been turning to for the past year or so.
The remainder of the story follows Daisy and Ruth as they explore the next stage of their lives as women without the ties of commitment.  One cringe-worthy (though entertaining with a massive ick factor) character, Simon, seemingly preys on recent widows to provide his warped idea of comfort in the form of sex therapy.

'Daisy had listened very attentively, he was sure he had comforted her.  If Luke's brother hadn't turned up, taken over, he might have been able to comfort her rather more thoroughly.  Still, there was time.  Once the funeral was over, she would need a man's arms about her.  Why not his arms?


While Ruth is technically still married, once the shock of her husband's infidelity wears off she toys with the idea of an affair of her own.  And who wouldn't appreciate an escape from Joe's hypochondria?  It is her character that is most fascinating to watch evolve as the reader realizes her dysfunctional childhood has prepared her to handle more than she thought possible.  While the storylines may have been a bit overly dramatic I certainly admired Bawden's skill at keeping all of the idiosyncrasies of the characters straight...and their secrets.  There are a couple of twists and turns to make the reader sit up and take notice which when combined with the odd bits of humour and poignant moments add up to quite the entertaining read.  

While looking up some information on the author I found it interesting that at the age of fourteen she was evacuated to Aberdare, Wales during the Second World War.  Ruth's married name in this book just so happens to be 'Aberdare'.  Also, Bawden was touched by tragedy several times during her lifetime, once when a son from her first marriage committed suicide in 1981, then in 2002 her second husband, Austen Kark, was killed and Nina injured in the Potter's Bar rail crash.  Their daughter, Perdita, died in March, 2012 just a few months before Nina passed away the following August.

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