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A House in Flanders (Independent Voices) Paperback – 24 May 2001
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|Paperback, 24 May 2001||
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No matter, for the story is not without interest in itself: its innocent evocation of France only six years after the end of WWII; and, above all, of a way of life that not many readers will themselves have encountered. Here we have a household of ageing siblings whose lives have all been, in one way or another, distressed by two world wars now living together in the house built by their grandfather at the centre of its small estate. The underlying currents (generally gentle) will be recognised by those fortunate to have grown up in large families possessed of ample space; but for most it will be a fascinating glimpse of another world. Not that this is of the "upstairs-downstairs" genre, for it smacks more of a tolerant commune where a remnant of a moyenne bourgeoisie exists in mutual inter-dependance with those (very few) who attend it.
Altogether a poignant memoir even if its telling suffers from stiff prose and lack of fluency.
So he goes to visit and he meets his aunts, Yvonne, Florence, Alice, Therese, Lise and his Uncle Auguste and other cousins and relatives. France is not a country I have visited very often and I know little of the countryside, but this opening paragraph caught my imagination immediately:
'In the extreme northern part of France lies the plain of Flanders, a great fertile expanse rolling inland from the sea until it meets a chain of conical hills which, strung out like a necklace of beads, run north over the frontier to Belgium and southwards in the direction of Picardy. The plain is liberally dotted with prosperous looking farms, whose thatched roofs and brick walls merge easily into the landscape while villages with massive church towers look down from the hills over woods and carefully husbanded fields'
One by one, Michael comes to know his aunts: Tante Yvonne, the eldest of the sisters, the chatelaine, the head of the family who, as a teenager took over the responsibility of the farm and her family, when both parents died suddenly. She sacrificed a possible marriage, a life of her own and any independent life she may have had to care for her family. She is wise, canny, loving and warm and I fell in love with her within a few pages, as did young Michael.
All the aunts have their own characteristic and foibles: Tante Florence, Yvonne's sister in law whose husband came home from the the First World War a broken man and lived only a few years longer. He had witnessed the death of Antoine, the young brother of Yvonne who was one of those who died pitifully young in the trenches. Tante Alice, rich and wealthy and the owner of many farms, but rather tight fisted and not keen to part with money or to look after her tenants properly until shamed into it by Tante Yvonne. Then there is gentle Tante Lise, profoundly deaf who lives in a world of her own, Oncle Auguste who still nurtures a hatred of the Germans after they took over the estate and who likes a glass of wine or two and thinks he is still at war.
Michael Jenkins devotes a section of his book to each of his relatives and as the summer goes by and there are anecdotes galore and gently,touching stories about his aunts and uncles, all told with enormous affection and love. There is a sense of other worldliness in this depiction of this part of the author's boyhood, a feeling that each day was a golden one, full of gentle comings and goings, a life that seemingly had not changed and would always continue.
I was aware that I was nearing the end of this quite lovely book and I slowed down as I did not want to finish it, like Michael I was loathe to acknowledge that my time in Flanders was coming to an end, I wanted to stay.
There is a quote from the actor Dirk Bogarde on the cover of A House in Flanders. He lived in France for many years and he says 'this is a radiant book and one I beg you not to overlook. You will pick it up again and again for sheer delight. This is perfect, simple prose at its best'
Yes that is what I was trying to put into words and he has done it for me. He is right - it is sheer delight and, yes, it is radiant...
The feel for the family members is heart warming, and - as I know that region well myself - I could pretty much pinpoint the Flanders hill where the village is located; one of my own favourite bits of France.
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