God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam has that special dreamy quality that so often hooks me, but that hook didn't sink in quickly. I was two chapters in before I was caught. Then I couldn't get enough of eight year-old protagonist, Margaret, and the tangle of complex relationships that surround her. The book is set in England in the early part of the 20th century, where breast-feeding an infant is a touch Bohemian and removing your stockings in public a precursor to sin, so we're appropriately scandalized when Margaret's eighteen year-old maid, Lydia, ducks behind a tree to remove her corset, but our 21st century perspective applauds her spirit. We know immediately who the heroine in this story is. While Margaret's preacher father, Marsh, seems to care only for scripture ("Mind the Book and not the sunset."), while her mother, Elinor, is absorbed in the simple bodily needs of her new baby, it's Lydia who sets Margaret free to roam in the woods. When the cigarette-smoking Lydia first arrives and immediately sets about making scones, Elinor seems fearful and says, "she must go." But Marsh won't hear of it: "`She has been sent,' said Marsh. `We are to work His will.'" He seems intent on reforming the sinner, but when he suggests he and Lydia take a walk together in the woods, she adamantly refuses. To her mind, there's only one reason a man would want to get her alone in the woods, and her reasoning makes us question Marsh's intentions as well.
Seen through the eyes of a perceptive, precocious child, all the adults seem absurd. Margaret's POV is the simple voice of reason, and Lydia is her only ally in natural living. The rest have all been led astray by odd obsessions--love, power, self-sacrifice, a particular way of worshipping god. It's because they miss the common simplicity of life that they are constantly engaged in conflicts with one another, conflicts that are by turns funny, poignant, and heartbreaking. This is a domestic drama that delivers up as much tension as a murder mystery--what will happen when Marsh cracks, as Lydia knows is inevitable? What will happen when Elinor stops breastfeeding?
We learn that one who goes away and returns is changed, their perspective permanently altered. Just as the Frayling siblings are changed by Cambridge, their mother's nurse, Booth, waxes over her time spent in China, saying, "Never the same again. You're never the same again." Margaret asks, "Do you have to leave a place to be clever?" It's the shifting perspectives in this book that make it interesting, the going away and returning, to another place or another time.