22 April 2018

The Yellow Houses by Stella Gibbons

It's safe to say the winter that didn't want to let go, has finally gone.  And it's a good thing as we have tickets for a Blue Jays baseball game next week and no one wants to attend a game in their winter coat!  These longer days and warmer temperatures scream for the sort of lighthearted fun you'll have with Stella Gibbons, and The Yellow Houses was way more fun than I was expecting.

The town of Torford, seventy miles from London 'on the side that goes east...' has rebuilt the damage resulting from the Blitz.  Wilfred Davis, recently widowed, sits on a park bench watching people go about their day before a flood of tears blurs his vision.  Suddenly, a man appears before him wearing something that resembles a white raincoat, offering a linen handkerchief that smells of fern.  It's not the loss of his wife causing Wilfred's wracking sobs, it's the note from his sixteen year-old daughter saying she feels it's time to leave school and find a job in London.  Mary also hopes to find a young man to marry and father the three children she's already chosen names for.  Mrs Davis would be spinning in her grave to know the time spent she's spent promoting education has been lost on her daughter. 

So far, so good.  As a reader I've been roped in.  I was prepared for the man in the white raincoat to be some sort of mystical guiding light, but that's only the beginning.  Enter comedy....Mr Davis has a lodger by the name of Mrs Wheeby who delighted me no end.

   'Round the rhododendrons, accompanied by the sound of panting, came Mrs Wheeby, who lodged in Wilfred's house, and suffered with her chest.  She was bundled in layers of elderly wool, and wore a hat of felt; hard in outline and fawn in colour, cocked above an unmemorable face.'

Mrs Wheeby is besotted with her canary and whale music, both of which push Wildred's level of comfort and acceptance to the limit.  Poor Wilfred is contemplating a move but he's worried about how to tell Mrs Wheeby it's time to move along.   At the same time, Mrs Wheeby begins to assure Wilfred she will never abandon him to loneliness.  In the meantime, poor Wilfred seeks the counsel of the head at his daughter's school.  Opening the door, he's greeted by 'Slutty' Singer, the feckless mother of five children by different men.  What would Wildred's dear wife think of the slipping standards at Torford's lovely school for girls?

  'Wildred had never accepted the mentally deficient theory, believing, for his part, that Slutty was what Pat had called careless, and the twentieth century would have called fruitful.'

'Slutty' lives down the street from Wilfred's father, who acts as something of a part-time caregiver to two of her very young daughters.  I was touched by the way he would leave his front door open so they could watch television from his front step as he handed out biscuits and other light refreshments.

Meanwhile in London, Wilfred's daughter has quickly found work in a clothing shop near the Liverpool Street station.  Owned by Mrs Levy, a native of Germany, Mary has a difficult task in convincing the owner that not all young women are interested in being lazy, young men, and shirking responsibility.  And then Yasuhiro Tasu, of noble birth, appears in the neighbourhood wearing a fabulously well-tailored coat, catching Mary's attention.  Coincidentally (or is it?), Yasu rents a room at her B&B to improve his English, share his thoughts on samurai warriors and spend an exorbitant amounts of money on flowers.

Can you imagine presenting these plot devices, in one treatment, to a team at a publishing company?  It sounds completely bonkers, which might be part of the reason this novel was tucked away for decades in a desk at Stella Gibbons's grandson's home.  Brought to the light of day after her death and eventually published by Vintage in 2016, The Yellow Houses is absolutely delightful! 

My husband bought this book for me last Christmas simply because it was by Stella Gibbons.  She's one of my favourite authors, admired to the point in which a synopsis doesn't even warrant a consideration; her name on the cover is my assurance of a good read.  If someone in a book shop tried to sell me a book about an adventurous drop-out who falls in love with a Japanese fellow of questionable political views, while mystical characters spread cheer around 1970s England I would usually run a mile.  But in the hands of Stella Gibbons, you feel as though you're reading something of a grown-up fairy tale with each voice written so convincingly. 

A thoroughly enjoyable read and highly recommended for fans of Stella Gibbons!

Highgate Village High Street by Lynn Bindman


  1. Thank you, thank you! I adore Stella but was completely unaware of this book, I shall immediately to to another tab to find/order it. It sounds utterly bonkers so just up my street...

  2. That's wonderful, Toffeeapple! Pure Juliet is another title that was published recently after being rescued from the depths of a dusty cupboard. We seem to be kindred spirits when it comes to novels!

    1. I adored The Yellow Houses, thank you. Not too sure baout Pure Juliet, yet, I shall ponder.

  3. I love Stella Gibbons, still have My American and Westwood on the TBR shelves. Must get to them soon and will definitely add The Yellow Houses to the list!