Most helpful critical review
Two Novels Condensed Into One
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.