19 February 2018

Concluding by Henry Green

Why did I think this book was going to be a cosy read?  This is Henry Green after all, and now that I've read three of his novels it's apparent you end up with far more than you bargained for.

Published in 1948 the plot of this pastoral scene reads like something from an episode of Midsomer Murders.  It's the day of the Founder's Ball at a girls' boarding school in the English countryside and two of its pupils have gone missing.  Mr Rock, a retired scientist, lives in a cottage on the grounds and occupies himself with his mini-collection of white animals - a pig, a goose, and a cat.  He's afraid of the dark and never opens his mail.  Two aging spinsters, Miss Edge and Miss Baker, run the school and are sometimes referred to as 'harpies'.  But then the reader discovers that the two women have 'risen in the State Service...'.  Is Henry Green portraying a socialist community post World War II?  Also, as each pupil is introduced I realized their names all began with the letter M, possibly as a way to illustrate uniformity.

Despite Green's political views or any ulterior motive behind this story, his humour continually shines through...

As a result, this receding vista of white and black lozenges (tiles) set from the rugs to four feet up the walls, in precise and radiating perspective, seemed altogether out of place next British dragons in green and yellow; while the gay panelling above, shallow carved, was genuine, the work of a master, giving Cupid over and over in a thousand poses, a shock, a sad surprise in such a room.

Miss Edge and Miss Baker are desperate to get their hands on the cottage occupied by Mr Rock.  They're also keen to be rid of Sebastian Birt, a twenty-seven year old economist and tutor at the school.  The fly in the ointment, so to speak, is that Mr Rock is entitled to live in the cottage until he dies.  His daughter Elizabeth is frequently ill and has moved into the cottage after suffering a nervous breakdown.  Sebastian and Elizabeth have fallen in love and spend many delightful hours in each other's arms in the dappled shade of trees in the surrounding woodland.  Both characters seek outcomes from the relationship but lack sincerity.

You can see how a novel set in a single day can be padded out to fill 245 pages.  Now cue the missing girls - Mary and Merode.  In a surreal atmosphere, swags of azaleas to decorate the hall are being constructed while Miss Edge and Miss Baker tell the students not to go near the weedy pond.  The insinuation being they might stumble upon a body.  Watching the heads blissfully distract themselves while hoping the girls will turn up safe and sound is both frustrating and unsettling.  But as Eudora Welty states in her introduction....

Particularly do you stand a chance of being left in the power of Concluding - of all that has deliberately not been said, has been mysteriously implied.  The spell comes each time from his style, a fact which explains nothing, for style is as mysterious a thing as any spell.

As the dance gets underway the pupils, who have previously been portrayed as innocents, involve Mr Rock in an event that could be deciphered in several ways.  Looking back at my notes, I scribbled a bit of swear-y language down to unexpected twists and turns.

I read this book with mixed emotions.  It is fascinating, strange, beautiful, clever, unsettling and ridiculous in turns...and unforgettable.  If you go into this novel, as I did, looking for a twee bit of distraction you'll wonder where it all went wrong, but as speculative fiction it's absolutely brilliant.  I'll most definitely be reading this book again.

Separating Fighting Swans by Stanley Spencer (1891 - 1959)

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