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Only Insomniacs Understand Intimately The Small Hours,
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This review is from: The Small Hours (Paperback)
Susie Boyt has a certain way with words. No long convoluted Proustian sentences will flow from her pen, but her descriptive prowess is wonderfully idiosyncratic, powerfully introspective, really with a flair all of her own. In this book she paints the portrait of a highly sympathetic but psychologically damaged female, Harriet Mansfield. We learn to like her because she is always trying her best but at the same time we know the odds for success are invariably stacked against her.
Tall and ungainly with red hair and extra-large feet she would have reason to feel self conscious even if she had not had an abusive childhood. There are dark hints that her mother had been violent towards her when she was very young. Later, as a student at College, she lands in a psychiatric ward presumably on account of some form of self-harm, although this is left to our imagination. Throughout her life she is living always on the edge, nervous, self-depreciating, depressive, insomniac. Although she has some private means she finds a job as a house agent four days a week devoting the rest as a volunteer, a supernumerary helper and carer in the children's ward of the hospital where she had once been interned. This is an occupation she adores because she has a way with young children and they respond so well to her.
An excellent secondary portrait is drawn of Miss McGee. She is the psychoanalyst who three times weekly over a seven year period "sketched, cosseted, allowed to unravel, challenged, stretched and re-educated" Harriet. Susie Boyt, as Sigmund Freud's great grand-daughter, is very self-assured describing this milieu with its "unsanitary mess" and "ritual humiliations". But her subtle observations of Miss McGee's style of dress, mode de vie and mannerisms also add relief to the story she is relating. The realism of it all ends up hitting you in three colourful dimensions ! We are left with the vivid impression of another fictional character, spun out of the real world we inhabit, not from a phantasmagorical image in the author's mind.
Thanks to McGee's professional love and care - and to a family legacy - our hero Harriet believes in her late thirties she may spread her wings and fly; acquiring a suitable dwelling she opens an idealized nursery school for girls, employing four bright young things, where the emphasis was to be on character building through spontaneous pleasure and opportunity rather than have the very young submitted to achieving a version of academic success.
I must leave the potential reader to discover how this creative streak in Harriet fares, having given (like the author !) ample information for an intelligent guess. I personally feel the story ends rather too melodramatically, with insufficient evidence, uncharacteristically given, for the protagonists' motivations. Some will disagree. What seems a more general criticism is that the book is a little unbalenced with a lot of inverted chronology. It's a standard ploy of modern fiction, I know, but here it's employed very liberally, like spoilers. Perhaps it is the author's intention that we should anticipate a less than happy ending, and that everything in life is fore-ordained just like in Greek tragedy.