27 March 2017

Pure Juliet by Stella Gibbons

When Pure Juliet was published in 2016, it was surrounded by the faint whiff of a consolation prize for fans.  Apparently found amidst Gibbons' belongings after her death, there is also a train of thought that perhaps the novel wasn't quite up to scratch, or desperately needed revising.  Whatever the case, it's a good thing I don't pay much attention to critics.

'The person described as giving Miss Roberts the creeps proceeded at a swift pace ahead of the two teachers.  She was noticeable for this unusual quickness of movement; for her hair, which was so fair as to look silver in certain lights; and for the expression in her eyes, small and so full of light that their colour was hard to name.'

Juliet Slater has finished school with five A levels in science and maths, but has almost no concept of social graces and no time for relationships.  She is wholly consumed by the reading of textbooks and unravelling the mystery of coincidence.  Juliet's mother, Rose, spends her day making pots of tea, preparing meals and cleaning the house.  George Slater's day is spent driving a train between St Pancras and Standish, picking up a copy of the Evening News on his way to grab a couple of pints before dinner.  The concept of Juliet attending university is seen as a complete waste of time when she could easily start earning money as a secretary.

While there is no obvious label of Juliet being on the autism spectrum, there are all sorts of clues.  The lack of a label also allows the reader to sink into the notion that Juliet simply marches to the beat of her own drum and chooses to sidestep social convention.  I found her fascinating.

A chance encounter (or as Juliet would favour, a coincidence) involving the elderly Miss Adelaide Pennecuick results in an invitation to spend a year at her manor house called Hightower in the countryside.  Echoing an era from the past, Juliet arrives with her suitcase....

  'A long face, irresistibly suggesting that of a sheep, below silver hair, smiled at her from a wheelchair drawn up to an electric fire.  The room was stiflingly hot, in spite of the summer heat outside; the occupant of the chair's skeletal arms were bared to the elbow by a long dress of blue silk.
Juliet went up to her, sank to her knees beside the chair and, putting her arms round the thin old body, lifted her face passively to receive kiss after lingering kiss, while she shut senses against the odour of verbena toilet water and eighty-year-old flesh.'

The image is positively Gothic, isn't it.  But standing in the background are five entertaining Spanish servants from the same family that form a perfect juxtaposition to the dated manor house.  And then there's Addy's nephew, Frank, with a fondness for fays and water-sprites and devoted to the movement called the Association for the Investigation of Edible Grasses.  While a vegan lifestyle is nothing new, I delighted in Stella Gibbons being ahead of her time, because in Frank she has written a vegan warrior equal to any like-minded blogger you could find today.  And I adored Frank for his ability to accept Juliet's differences and support her genius.  He encourages Juliet to consider a place at Cambridge University, and considering her lack of social skills, passing the interview could be one of many roadblocks.

Pure Juliet is pure magic and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it; in fact, the ending made my eyes well up.  It wasn't because of any particular event, but that Juliet's character had grabbed my heart.  Pure Juliet is a story that conjures up images of working class England in the seventies, with a sprinkle of the Edwardian era, and a dash of the whimsical Durrells in Corfu.  I highly recommend this as a book to enjoy on the patio this summer or take along on a holiday.  Well done, Stella Gibbons!

Reading at a Table by Pablo Picasso


  1. I think the system should be that you don't listen to critics, and that we do listen to you. :)

    1. We're a pretty like-minded bunch around here, aren't we, Audrey.

  2. This sounds absolutely wonderful! I love that her character captured your heart. That's all the recommendation I need!

    1. I'm not sure if you've read any of Gibbons' work but I'm quite sure you would like her. Not as sophisticated as Bowen or Woolf but if you're looking for a cosy read, Gibbons is an excellent writer to reach for.