on 28 May 2002
I greatly admired Sue Gee's last two novels, THE HOURS OF THE NIGHT and EARTH AND HEAVEN. This one, I felt, was slower to grip, but ultimately did; however some of Sue Gee's stylistic tics have begun to irritate, notably the abrupt and sometimes confusing snatches of dialogue from previous conversations, which intrude into the "present". However, the interaction between her characters is as well-done as ever; she excels in portraying the extraordinariness of ordinary life and people, and the texture of everyday life. She is always interested in hurt and loss; here we have William's son Matthew, resident of a mental hospital; the lonely William, who has lost everyone close to him either literally or metaphorically; and the countryside itself, reeling from foot-and-mouth disease (she must have worked amazingly fast to produce this novel less than a year after the events portrayed). As a whole, this novel is less striking than its two predecessors, but still engrossing and moving. Fragile hopes are sometimes rewarded.
In my view, Sue Gee is one of the best (and to some degree under-appreciated) writers of fiction working today. At her best, for example in her first novel 'Spring Will Be Ours', in sections of 'Keeping Secrets', 'Letters from Prague' and 'The Hours of the Night', in the wonderful 'Earth and Air', in her latest novel 'Reading in Bed' and in her collection of short stories, Gee is absolutely terrific. However, I didn't feel that this was one of her most successful novels (and I'm interested to see that she's taken it off her backlist for her last couple of books).
The story centres around William Harriman, a retired Civil Servant who has found retirement has brought him much sorrow: his beloved wife Eve has died of cancer, his son Matthew, a talented musician, has been diagnosed schizophrenic and spends most of his life in hospital, and his daughter Claire, married with three children has severe depression, which makes her irritable and non-communicative, particularly with her father. William's main areas of enjoyment are reading, looking at paintings, listening to music and running a weekend antique china stall in Camden Passage Market with Eve's old friend Buffy, a sharp-witted woman who has never married, and who spends retirement campaigning tirelessly for Friends of the Earth, singing in an over-sixties choir, and sussing out merchandise for the china stall. William's life suddenly begins to change when Janice Harper, a twenty-three-year-old girl from Shropshire, with no qualifications, but a love of literature, and plenty of skill as a waitress, dog-walker, carer for the elderly and infirm and baker of cakes, comes to stay with him. Janice has come on the advice of William's eccentric cousin Mary, who lives with her siblings Sophie and Ernest in a small cottage in Shropshire, and runs a dog rescue centre and 'Dog Museum' featuring models of heroic and characterful dogs designed by the artistically-inclined Ernest. Seeing that Janice is bored in Shropshire, Mary persuades her to go to London to 'make something of herself' - and after an unhappy love affair, Janice does so. Almost immediately, she begins to change everyone's lives. William feels young again due to her presence in his house, and has a wonderful time taking her to museums, galleries and concerts and lending her books. Claire, after a period of deep suspicion, begins to trust Janice, to the point of wanting to tell her the secret she has been keeping for years. And Janice seems to have a powerful effect on Matthew, who seems to be reviving the more they meet. But can Janice cope when she begins to learn about Matthew's and Claire's pasts? Meanwhile Buffy, threatened with a serious illness, realizes that she has to tell William her secret, while up in foot-and-mouth-infected rural Shropshire, William's cousins are threatened with financial ruin, until Ernest has a bright idea....
As always with Sue Gee, the book contains some beautiful writing. I cared a lot about both William and Janice, though I couldn't quite believe in Janice's refusal to get any qualifications beyond the age of sixteen as she was so bright. There were some wonderful passages: the scene where William takes Janice to look at Dutch paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery; Janice's meetings with Matthew; William, Buffy and Matthew's Christmas dinner; Ernest realizing what a talented artist he is, to name but a few. But altogether I didn't feel the novel quite hung together. Although I liked Buffy, I had problems with her name (it's a bit of a mistake to give characters silly names; it prevents you empathizing with them and for me the name had all sorts of associations with stuffy upper-class people - wouldn't she have ever used her full name?), would have liked to know more about her past and why she didn't marry, and didn't quite believe in the rapid way her relationship with William changed. The Dog Museum trio (apart from Ernest) never quite came to life, and I'd have liked to know more about Ern's business plan at the end. And, most importantly, I felt that Claire's secret was SO momentous that it needed a lot more narrative space - and detail. Bringing it in at such speed near the end didn't quite work. Wagnerian passions need Wagnerian space to be explored! I would have liked to have had more of the book from Claire's point of view - she came across for too much of the novel as simply bad tempered and neurotic. Everything got wrapped up a bit tidily in the final chapter.
Much to enjoy, but not Gee's best shaped novel. However, she remains one of my favourite writers and I'm looking forward to her new one when it finally comes out.
on 4 December 2013
I have read several books by Sue Gee and this one is up with the best. It deals with various problems of modern society: mental health, incest, bereavement, loneliness, illness, dysfunctional family life. Of course, these are seen through the eyes of the wonderful characters and relationships which Sue Gee creates. There is emotion, mystery, and a good dose of humour and her structure cannot be faulted. I can thoroughly recommend this novel.