12 November 2013

Launching 'The Boat'

This book is a perfect case for disregarding the fifty page rule.  I tend to be a very visual reader so if early on there is no concrete image of a setting or characters and all that is before me is paper and ink, my mind will drift.  Thank goodness I hung in there for at page fifty-eight my love affair with L. P. Hartley's The Boat began.

The interaction between the ladies downstairs, Beatrice and Effie, and their employer is hilarious.  Offering up their resignation at every turn of a situation that fails to suit them speaks to the affable nature of Timothy Casson.  A newcomer to the village, the servants really are his only companions for the time being but the beautiful Miss Cross, staying at The Nook, could change all that.  Their first meeting led to instant fireworks but no sooner did they share a kiss then she was off to parts unknown.  I can't wait for her to get back!  World War II is in its early stages and so far seems a thousand miles away but the arrival of evacuees brings the war effort to the Old Rectory.  Will two little boys running around the place throw the house and staff into chaos...

'The evacuees duly arrived, two little boys ages five and seven, and were warmly welcomed not only by Timothy but by Beatrice and Effie.  They were shy and tongue-tied and almost paralysed in Timothy's presence, but as soon as his back was turned they broke into violent movement, kicking up their heels like colts and shouting at each other in strong Midland accents that caused some amusement to Beatrice and Effie.  Questions arose about where they were to go and what parts of the house should be out of bounds to them; Timothy took them for a sight-seeing tour from room to room; they gazed wide-eyed but without seeming to take in what they saw, or kept each other's spirits up with nudges and whispered confidences when he was looking the other way.  At the beginning he determined to see them every day after tea...'

The boat may have more to do with symbolism than anything else because at page one hundred and sixty it hasn't been out of the boathouse.  A group of ex-servicemen from The Great War cherish their fishing rights and won't have the river disturbed while there are other pro-boat members egging Casson on to just go for it and stand up to the old set.  At only one-third of the way through this charming story about village society and fitting in I expect anything to happen but wanted to share my thoughts thus far.

6 November 2013

A Quiet Life by Beryl Bainbridge

The number of times I have stood before a bookcase, eyeing up the shelves, pull a book only to change my mind...oh, such fuss.  So when I recently decided to give Beryl Bainbridge a try and the bookshop was closing in less than fifteen minutes it came down to 'grab or miss out'.  If I'm being honest it was the egg and chips on the cover that drew me in.  Well, the immediate correlation would be a cosy domestic scene but in the case of this story, I am surprised the egg and chips are not exhibited sliding down a kitchen wall instead of on a plate.

The book begins a few years after World War II at the Lyceum cafĂ©.  Alan orders a pot of tea and waits for his sister, Madge, to arrive.  In his pocket is their mother's engagement ring which tradition usually dictates goes to a daughter upon death.  It has been fifteen years since the siblings have been in each others company and in that time very little has changed.  Madge arrives late and dishevelled; more interested in the cakes and scones than discussing jewellry or sentiments.

'...she had sent that distasteful letter written on this toilet paper, from some town in France, suggesting that if they were going to put Mother in the same grave as Father it might be a waste of time to carve 'Rest in Peace' on the tombstone.'

The story then drifts back in time to when Alan is seventeen, standing in the middle of the whirlwind that is his home life.  And if that's not bad enough, yet another irritating boil has arisen on his neck, right at his shirt collar.  There was a time when his father provided extremely well but lately Alan is not quite sure what his father does for a living but it has involved everything from '...paint, cloth and timber' and involves many phone calls followed by greedy smiles and hand-rubbing.  Alan's mother dresses beautifully and cares very much about appearances.  She never once misses the opportunity to correct her husband when he refers to the garden as a 'yard' or the lounge as a 'back room'.  Husband and wife choreograph their movements through the house to avoid each other as much as possible which means Alan is very much an intermediary for their conversation.  Madge is a bit of a street rat, roaming the woods and dunes in her bare feet, hair blowing in the wind.  Much of that time in the great outdoors is spent in the arms of a German POW.

The family dynamics in this book very much mirror what life was like for Bainbridge at home surrounded by dysfunction and yes, she also had a lengthy affair with a German POW.  A Quiet Life is delightfully full of the chaos and melodrama which makes for entertaining stories years down the road, such as when Alan's father has had enough of the excess of old chairs in the house.  Grabbing some newsprint and a package of matches he heads for the garden...

'Father spat with anger.  His cheeks wobbled as he tried to find words.  Something fell from him and landed in the fire.  Sparks eddied upwards into the trees.  He clutched his mouth and Mother turned away in disgust.  Alan knelt and groped in the warm ashes for the dentures.  As Mother ran back up the garden she began to laugh.'

In the early stages of this book I felt more than a bit sorry for Alan.  Ever hype-alert to any foreseeable conflict within the house the poor thing turns up the volume on the radio when his father approaches the front walk to drown out any arguing which may ensue.  Further into the story though it becomes apparent that the traits he so disliked in his father have come home to roost in his own critical nature and penny-pinching ways.  It is also interesting to note that while this book is quite autobiographical, the main character is Alan and not his wayward sister, Madge.  Being able to poke fun at the neuroses of certain family members from a distance and come out looking like the one who had it right (or at least almost) all along was rather clever, if you ask me.  A delightful tragi/comedy and excellent introduction to the world of Beryl Bainbridge.