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More than Victoriana...,
This review is from: After Such Kindness (Hardcover)Gaynor Arnold's second novel, After Such Kindness, announces itself as inspired by Lewis Carroll and Alice and this is certainly useful information. But quickly the reality, or otherwise, of that relationship is set aside as Arnold's characters begin to live. We, of course, are aware of the terrible things that adults can do to children (and to each other) and of the ability of the human mind to fictionalise or hide the truth. And we - in our rational and enquiring world at least - are largely un-influenced by a day to day concern for interpreting the will of an Almighty. So in reading After Such Kindness we are permitted a privileged view, smiling benignly at the extraordinary knots of conscience into which the protagonists tie themselves.
Or so I thought, but actually we are absorbed by the layers of known and unknown deceit; the concerns for propriety and appearance become real; the lightly-drawn back-stories of each of the characters offer an emotional drama far more significant than the individual players. At the heart of After Such Kindness is the early life of Daisy Baxter, who with the naivety of a Victorian child illuminates the inequality and extremism of a culture that considered itself rather civilised. And it is around her 'innocence' and what this might mean - how it might be traded into marriage, how it might be used as art, how adults might relate to it - that the story weaves. Revelations are offered to us, always with a certain uncertainty to remind us that appearance and reality were ever at odds. Characters form and re-form themselves; a telling phrase or disarming cameo often suggesting that there is more to be known.
This is a subtle and troubling period portrait that reflect our times. We too value image above all else, we too are obsessed with the truth behind the front and we are just as capable of being influenced irrationally by forces beyond our control or understanding. Arnold's characters are clearly of their time and even of the literature of their time (there are echoes of Hardy and Elliot) and yet they have a real force. Though it has a Victorian setting this is not Victoriana - this is a novel of truth and lies, of boundaries and transgressions, and of the hopeless ability of human beings to make a good situation bad. And the prose is excellent: direct enough for the modern reader but with an echo of a more leisured time. This is an excellent novel and a rewarding read.