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42 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on 15 September 2000
Despite the sometimes farcical aspects of this story, it's a moving and still believable tribute to childhood, old age, passion, obsession and loneliness. Each character can stand alone as a pen sketch in human nature. This is a lovely book, touchingly simple in its descriptions of the human condition, but full of complex characters - just like life itself!. I loved it and highly recommend it as an introduction to Jane Gardam.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 28 December 2009
Wednesdays is `treat' day for Margaret, when her mother allows her to go on an outing with the maid, Lydia. Ellie, Margaret's mother, has just had another baby and she knows that Margaret, now eight, needs to feel loved. There are several things wrong with this scenario and, gradually, Gardam lets us discover what they are. Lydia, for instance is a magnet for young men, blowsy, large and blonde. Margaret's parents are members of the Primal Saints, a small Christian sect who do not allow pictures, music or dancing and there must be no alcohol or smoking in their houses. Margaret's father is a bank clerk and leader of the sect. Lydia has been sent (by distant Saints in Bishop Aukland, recommended as "a good girl from a devout family, strong in the faith and a good scrubber."). Lydia is not averse to work, but she is far from the paragon promised. Mrs Marsh is disconcerted: "We thought - you see, we thought -," she said. "Didn't you know? Mr Marsh, and I of course, and the children - we are The Faithful."

"Think nothing of it," said Lydia, "Where d'you keep yer butter?"

Astonishingly for Ellie Marsh, her husband will not hear of Lydia being sent away, "She has been sent," said Marsh. "We are to work His will."

The novel as a whole is a delight. Lydia wreaks havoc, Margaret learns that her mother is fallible and that the world is a much larger place than she thought. Ellie Marsh has a past more interesting than her present, with connections to an aristocratic family living nearby - whose matriarch has disinherited her children after ruining most of their lives and turning their stately pile into a refuge for so-called lunatics. These elements of the story are gradually brought together to provide a brilliant and exhilarating comedy of manners.

Shortlisted for the Booker in 1978, this novel is funny, sometimes provoking and profound.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Set in England in the era between the two world wars, God on the Rocks, with its sly, multi-layered title, is one of Jane Gardam's earliest novels, a delightful but carefully considered look at society, religion, personal responsibility, and acts of fate in the lives of several families. Eight-year-old Margaret Marsh, the primary speaker, is energetic and thoughtful, living comfortably with her very religious bank manager-father and her subservient and seemingly passive mother. The family has recently been joined, however, by Lydia, a "fallen woman" whom her father Kenneth believes he is called upon to "save."

An especially precocious child, Margaret is having a hard time at home, these days, unable to understand the God who has sent her a baby brother who bores her (she wishes she could call him "Scummy," instead of Terrence), and as she and her mother argue about why Margaret needs to love the baby, Margaret reveals an unusually sophisticated ability to think on two levels--that of her real life, which is infinitely more exciting now that Lydia has arrived, and that of the spiritual life which her parents are encouraging in her. As Margaret questions the act of creation on all levels, along with what love really is, she is confused. "If I'd been God, I'd have left it at dinosaurs," she remarks. "And if God looks like us...What's the point?"

Through flashbacks, Margaret's early rebellions appear, and as she happily meets "damaged" people at the beach, like Drinkwater, an artist who may be living at the rest home nearby (primarily for the shell shocked), her view of the world also grows. Her mother's childhood and the circumstances under which she married Kenneth Marsh, the points of view of several other characters and their courtships and marriages, and the tendency of all people to try to control the vulnerable, who have less power than they do, become subjects of exploration as the novel continues.

Without ever losing her sense of humor, often very dark, Gardam explores the contrasts between "good" and "evil." Her ability to describe in the most minute (and perfect) terms the people and places of her novel, and to see the world at large with humor, even as some of her characters cannot avoid seeing the world "writ small," cannot help but remind older readers (especially) of the enormous contrasts between novels written in precise and carefully considered language in a previous generation, which were the primary venue for new thematic insights, and the present world in which the primary venue is the internet, where the sound bite and the bumper sticker phrase reign. When a "dark and stormy night" brings the climax, and each of the characters must face a crisis of life-changing dimensions, the author's sense of irony and dark, mordant humor reach their peak, and reality vs. fantasy, sanity vs. insanity, and religious destiny vs. fate combine with the characters' identities as we have known them to create a memorable and unforgettable battle among the protagonists and the points of view they represent. Mary Whipple

Old Filth
The Man in the Wooden Hat
The Queen of the Tambourine
The People on Privilege Hill
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 June 2014
Well . . . eight-year-olds, actually. This is one of these novels in which a child's perspective on the goings-on of grown-ups is used to let us see the irrationality of so-called adult behavior, especially when that behavior is directed to the ends of order and control. Just to make sure we get that point, Gardam locates the main action of the novel (published in 1978) in the 1930's (1936, according to my reading of the internal evidence), and in such a way that the after-effects of World War 1 are still evident. The young protagonist, Margaret Marsh, left alone to wander at a seaside resort a few miles from her home, wanders on to the grounds of a big house, and it isn't very long before the reader figures out (as Margaret doesn't) that it is functioning as a nursing facility for men who have become psychologically disturbed as a result of their war experiences 17 and more years earlier. This forms part of the background against which the irrationality of domestic behavior is played out as the novel progresses.

Margaret's perceptions are fresh and often funny, and when she's puzzled, she asks direct questions that can be embarrassing. Gardam's rendering of the dialogue in which Margaret engages the adults around her, and her registration of the details of her everyday experience in surprising and vivid detail, are perhaps the real strengths of the book. The writing is consistently fresh, and there isn't a page on which you won't find some turn of phrase or descriptive detail that will delight you with its freshness and its rightness. These qualities are put at the service of a fairly standard theme -- the folly of people who believe that the crooked timber of humanity (in Kant's phrase) can be straightened out by them. The novel isn't at all like "Hard Times," but there's something of Gradgrind's predicament in Margaret's father's efforts to keep his daughter, his wife, and finally himself in check. Where he differs from Gradgrind is his deployment of religion to effect these controls -- a bank manager, he seems also to be the founder-leader of a small sect, the Primal Saints, in the seaside town of Westkirk, and Margaret has already memorized chapter and verse of the Bible passages that are supposed to guide her life, except that she really pays no attention to them. Her experience doesn't allow to do more than verbally parrot them at times when she knows her father expects it.

The serpent in the Marshes' Eden is Lydia, the maid-childminder, who clearly comes from a different socio-economic stratum than the middle-class Marshes. Part of Lydia's job is to look after Margaret as her mother deals with a newborn little brother. She is fleshy and fleshly, and Margaret likes her in part because she allows Margaret a good deal of freedom. Margaret is a bit turned off by the flesh, but for what seem like aesthetic rather than religious reasons. Her mother's post-pregnancy fleshiness (emphasized by her enthusiastic breast-feeding) and the baby brother's obnoxious (to Margaret) physicality are much noted -- and as the book goes on the contrast between the thin and the fleshy plays out in sometimes unexpected ways.

Margaret sees her mother as playing a role -- that there is something overdone about the cheery child-centeredness -- and as the book goes on the authenticity of her mother's apparent happiness is put to the test. Old friends from her childhood return to town -- Charles Frayling and his sister Binkie, both Cambridge-educated ex-socialists -- and the last two-thirds of the novel reveal the connection between the Marshes and the Fraylings, and the connection of both to the big house that now functions as a hospital for disturbed ex-soldiers. We learn that issues of parental control have figured in the past of the Fraylings, as they function somewhat differently in the "present" of the Marshes, and we are made aware that there are natural forces and drives (in the external as well as the internal world) that make the idea of control questionable and that lead, with a curious mixture of humor and pathos, to the controlling characters' acknowledgements (sometimes wry, sometimes painful) of their folly.

Clearly in these comments I have tried not to say too much. The charm of the novel lies in its surprises of language and events. Let me register, though, a couple of reservations about its total success. First, I have trouble finding Margaret altogether credible as an eight-year-old -- she's too alert, too smart, too verbally facile. But we need that voice and point of view for the perspectives to be established, so I just suspend my disbelief there. Second, near the end, Lydia is given a long explanatory powerful speech that isn't inconsistent with her character as we have come to know it, but perhaps isn't quite credible as something she would be able to articulate. Finally, the ending is a bit of a cop-out. The final chapter takes place 12 years after the previous one (No, I'm not giving anything of substance away!) and ties up some loose ends -- while raising some questions that one wishes had been engaged. There is one pleasant (I think) surprise in it, however.

Be warned that there are characters in the book, and many events both funny and painful, that this review has not mentioned in the interests of not spoiling things. The novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1978 but lost out to Iris Murdoch's "The Sea, the Sea." Murdoch is a fine and serious writer, quite alive to absurdity, but Gardam has a sharpness of eye, lightness of touch, and verbal felicity (especially in dialogue) that one can't find in Murdoch. Give this one a try.
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on 1 June 2015
Like Jane Gardam’s earlier novel “A Long Way from Verona”, “God on the Rocks” deals with a young girl growing up in a small Yorkshire seaside resort. Gardam herself was born in 1929 and grew up in such a resort, so there may be an autobiographical element to the two books. “A Long Way from Verona” was set in the wartime 1940s, this book a few years earlier in the pre-war 1930s.

Like Jessica Vye, the heroine of “A Long Way from Verona”, the main character here, the eight-year-old Margaret Marsh, is growing up in a deeply religious household, but the type of religion involved is very different. Jessica’s father is a relatively liberal Anglican clergyman; Margaret’s father Kenneth is a leading member of and a preacher in a small, exclusivist sect known as the Primal Saints. Apart from their conviction that they alone possess the key to salvation and that the rest of mankind is doomed to hellfire, the main distinguishing feature of the Saints is their extreme, joyless Puritanism. Their austere doctrines forbid not only alcohol and tobacco but also pictures, music and any form of entertainment, which are condemned as worldly vanities. The only permitted reading material is the Bible, which even at her tender age Margaret knows virtually off by heart.

The book revolves around two families, the Marshes and the Fraylings. The Marsh household consists of Margaret, her parents, her baby brother Terence and their maid Lydia. Although Lydia is officially a Primal Saint, there is little that is Puritanical about her. She is a lusty young woman with a much greater appetite for earthly pleasures than her religion officially permits. Kenneth always claims that he has employed Lydia to convert her to the paths of righteousness and bring her to the Lord, but there is always a suggestion that he may be less sincere than he appears and that he is as interested in Lydia’s body as in her soul.

The Fraylings, Charles and Binkie (presumably a nickname), are friends of Margaret’s mother. They are brother and sister, the children of a once-wealthy family who have declined, if not into poverty, at least into middle-class suburban domesticity. We learn that their eccentric mother, motivated by spite- she disliked her children’s socialist opinions- gave away their luxurious family home to be used as a lunatic asylum and that, by an ironic twist of fate, she, suffering from dementia, is now confined in the madhouse which was once her home.

The novel exhibits a number of Gardam’s strengths as a writer. There is a strong sense of place about her writing, shown in her ability to conjure up what might be called British Seaside Culture at its height before it was changed for ever by the advent of cheap package tourism in the sixties and seventies. (The book was published in 1978, just as this change was taking effect). It was a world of donkey rides, of sticks of rock, of end-of-the pier shows, of cheap boarding houses and even of preachers on the sands. (Kenneth finds the local beach a suitable platform for his oratory). Combined with this sense of place is an eye for detail; Gardam has a particularly keen eye for the nuances of the British class system.

Gardam’s other strength is for characterisation. This is particularly noteworthy in those scenes showing us the world through Margaret’s youthful eyes. Jessica begins her narrative in “A Long Way from Verona” by informing the reader that she is “not quite normal”. Margaret, younger than the teenage Jessica, is not old enough to realise just how abnormal her upbringing among the Primal Saints has been, but is old enough to try and make some sort of sense of it. She also befriends some of the inmates of the asylum, especially an elderly painter, without realising that they are insane; to her they are no stranger than any other grown-up. Gardam’s ability to see through a child’s eyes reminded me of some other authors writing around the same period, notably H E Bates in “The Distant Horns of Summer” and Alison Lurie in “Only Children”.

Against these strengths, however, must be set the book’s weaknesses which chiefly lie in the fields of structure and plot, which explains why I did not enjoy it as much as “A Long Way from Verona”. The short novel can be a difficult genre. Some examples are little more than overstretched short stories, but “God on the Rocks” exhibits the opposite fault, that of trying to cram too much plot into too little space. It is essentially two novels condensed into one very short one. The story of the Marsh household would probably have been enough to sustain a novel on its own; the history of the dysfunctional Frayling family certainly would have been. 150 pages are not really long enough for Gardam to tell both stories in sufficient detail to satisfy us.
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on 16 March 2014
Have lent this to a friend, a friend who had not come across Jane Gardam before ~ I look forward to reading it when she has finished it. J.P.
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on 6 February 2015
I love Jane Gardam books. They are clever and beautifully written. I am "rediscovering them" and loving every sentence.
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on 2 February 2015
I always love Jane Gardham books and this one is no exception. A bit quirky but a lot of fun, with a bit of a serious side too.
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on 29 April 2015
Thanks received in good condition
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