Category Archives: Bawden Nina

2018: It’s a Wrap

Towards the end of 2018, I started thinking about which books would make my best-of-year-list. Several of the titles I’d read this past year came to mind, and I began to think that I would, perhaps, have a difficult time narrowing down just a few titles to the list.

Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

A husband returns home to find his wife battered to death. The investigating detectives tell the husband, Leonard Henderson, to write down his statement, so we get his version of events which is contrasted to his memories of growing up with a cold, critical mother, and his marriage to the murder victim, Enid. Yes this is the story of a murder, but it’s also the story of a marriage (always impenetrable to outsiders). This is the first book I’ve read by Celia Dale, and it was on my shelf far too long before I finally picked it up. The tale is an insightful look at a claustrophobic marriage and I’ll be reading more from this author who now seems to have faded from view.

New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

A middle-aged, married antique seller gets a new lease on life when an attractive female customer walks into his shop. Narrated by 39-year-old Sam, this tale of a man who feels hampered by family life, ‘could’ be very 70s in its portrayal of a man who springs free of his commitments. Instead, in the capable hands of author Stephen Benatar, we see a selfish twerp with illusions of an acting career who proceeds to blow up his very comfortable life. While Sam may think his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us,” in reality, even though Sam is in control of the narration, we begin to wonder just who puts up with who in Sam’s marriage.

A Little Love, a Little Learning: Nina Bawden

Told in retrospect, this is the story of short, but significant period in the life of 12-year-old Kate who lives with her mother and stepfather, a doctor. It’s 1953, and a friend of Kate’s mother comes to live with the family. The guest is a rather gossipy but supposedly good-hearted woman, and her arrival sparks a series of events. Through these event, Kate learns that life is not black and white. I usually dislike books written from the child’s perspective but this tale, told with an adult’s view, is simply marvellous. This was the second novel I’d read by Bawden. I wasn’t that keen on the first so I’m happy I tried again.

The Good House: Ann Leary

If forced to pick ONE book as the best-of-the-year, then The Good House would be the choice. I read this early in the year so it set a high standard for comparison. This is the story of a high-functioning alcoholic, a divorced real-estate agent who thinks her drinking is no one else’s business. The unreliable narration here is tart, funny, and entertaining. I laughed out loud several times and was sorry to see this one end. Brilliant.

The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

One lazy summer, Matthew stays at the vacation home of his much wealthier cousin, Charlie. Matthew’s grateful for a place to stay while he mulls over the next phase of his life, but does Charlie really want Matthew there?  Matthew has a thing for Charlie’s second wife, Chloe, and when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, he finds himself in a moral dilemma. Should he tell Charlie? Nothing is quite what it seems in this novel.

A Change in the Lighting: Amy Witting

Amy Witting is a great favourite. and I knew I’d love this novel. A Change in the Lighting is the story of a middle-aged woman who is floored when her professor husband casually announces that he wants a divorce.  Ella whose whole life for the past 30 years has been raising three children and taking care of the household, doesn’t know what to do. She teeters on the edge of madness but sinks into elaborate rug making. Her children take sides in the divorce war, and yet .. in spite of everything that goes wrong, Ella finds that her life expands into new territory. Witty and wise.

A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor

Two childhood friends, Liz and Camilla, spend the summer at the home of Liz’s former governess, Frances. The novels examines the choices made by these women and how taking chances opens up the possibilities of hurt and even danger. In life, we make our choices and then wonder if they were the right ones. Elizabeth Taylor takes that central idea and runs with it. This is a very dark novel. When I picked it up, I wondered why the title was A Wreath of Roses and not a vase or a bunch etc. The word wreath reminded me of death…

Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

A middle-aged woman who married decades earlier on the rebound finds passion, but will this end happily? No of course not. This is narrated by a woman who seems in control of her passions, but is she? She functions well as an employee and a wife, but like an iceberg, what you see on the surface is only a fraction of what’s there. She may seem in control, but once unleashed, there’s no telling what may happen.

Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

A middle-aged woman goes off the rails when she becomes infatuated with a self-absorbed, married academic. A deranged narrator who is also unreliable. How can you go wrong? This was close to being my best read of the year….

Accident on the A-35: Graeme Macrae Burnet

A man dies in a car accident and a police detective investigates. In one sense this is a police procedural (my least favourite crime novel),  but has a crime even been committed? As the investigation continues, the detective finds that the inhabitants of this small French town are less than cooperative. But the crime/investigation is not the main story here: surely it’s the view of small town life, frustrated ambitions and a disintegrating marriage.

Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

A wealthy young man persuades an older woman, the mistress of another man, to become his mistress. The young man cannot live without this woman–or so he thinks, and then he gets her… this rather cynical (realistic) look at love and passion peels back the human psyche and it’s not pretty. But that’s why it’s such a great book.

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Filed under Bawden Nina, Benatar Stephen, Burnet Graeme Macrae, Constant Benjamin, Dale Celia, Fiction, Lasdun James, Leary Ann, Noll Ingrid, Schmitter Elke, Taylor, Elizabeth, Witting Amy

A Little Love, A Little Learning: Nina Bawden

“Women in the house like rabbits, looking at me reproachfully.”

In Nina Bawden’s wonderful novel, A Little Love, A Little Learning, it’s 1953, the coronation year, a year, as it turns out, which will irrevocably alter the lives of a doctor’s family. The story is told, in retrospect, through the eyes of the doctor’s step-daughter Kate. Kate, aged 12 when the story takes place, is the middle child of three daughters: Joanna is almost 18, and wild little Poll is the youngest. Before the children’s mother, Ellen, married Dr. Boyd, she lived with her three daughters in rather unfortunate circumstances. After moving from the country to a flat in a bombed out street full of  “half-derelict houses,” Ellen met Dr. Boyd while taking Poll for medical care, and they married within a month. The novel finds the family living, happily, in a large house at Monk’s Ford, the town where Boyd grew up. Boyd, orphaned at age six, was brought up by his unpleasant uncle, “the sort of man who would bury nails in his front lawn to teach the errand boy not to ride his bicycle over it.

The family’s lives begin to change when ‘Aunt’ Hat arrives to stay. Aunt Hat is a large, garrulous middle-aged woman who befriended Ellen during their evacuee days. The introduction of Aunt Hat to the household exposes children to adult situations and moral dilemmas touching such issues as death, insanity, domestic abuse, poverty, abortion and sex.

A little love a little learning

At first glance, Aunt Hat isn’t the sort of person anyone would pick as a friend of Ellen’s. The friendship though, is fermented in past shared misfortune. Both Aunt Hat and Ellen have known hardship, but this time, Aunt Hat has been put in the hospital by her third husband, an “infrequently employed dock worker,” and her stepson was so badly beaten that he too ended up in hospital. Aunt Hat’s volatile husband is now to stand trial, and in the meantime Aunt Hat is penniless and has nowhere else to go.

Aunt Hat’s presence in the house upsets the delicate balance of daily family life. Aunt Hat has a generous spirit and is supposedly well meaning, but nonetheless, she has a tendency to gossip and sentimentalize. Aunt Hat’s terrible life experiences, and her interpretation of those events, resonant with Kate.

Aunt Hat was unaware of the difference between a false emotion and a true one. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that Aunt Hat was unaware that falsity, that worm in the bud, existed even: there was no feeling too tinny, too worked over or second-hand, that Aunt Hat could not accept, and treat, as purest gold. It would never occur to her that emotion could be used as a device for getting attention, or merely for one’s private pleasure.

It’s not long before the children capitalize on Aunt Hat’s weaknesses.

She always contemplated the beautiful, enriching sadness of life, and hearing that sigh–I knew– though I could not have out it into words then–that she had retreated on to that plane, not so much of fantasy as of fictionalised truth, from which she found it comfortable to survey the world. 

This is a story of just a few months in the household: Joanna’s love life falls apart and she turns inwards as a result. She “goaded Ellen, the way a bored child will pull the wings off flies,” suddenly wanting to know information about her father. Kate, the story’s central character, faced with emotions she doesn’t understand, fabricates stories that have terrible consequences. Little Poll, who is deeply attached to a child who lives in a grubby caravan, mostly creates camps in the garden of the house next door–a house belonging to Claud Fantom and his reclusive sister. The Fantoms live in an enormous house that’s a shrine to the Fantom family’s glorious past in colonial India. The brother and sister despise each other and communicate only through written messages. Miss Fantom lives in her own part of the house with her Abyssinian cat, and her brother lights joss sticks to “cover up the smell.” It’s a cold war between the Fantoms, but Claud Fantom, who reads “yellowing back-numbers of” The Times of India, dominates the house with his sister a shadowy presence:

“Can’t stand the woman. Never could. Haven’t spoken to her in years.”

There’s another neighbour, frustrated spinster Miss Carter, Polly’s teacher who pushes herself into the Boyd household. She’s yet another of Boyd’s many female “middle-aged” admirers. With her stole of marten’s heads on her shoulders, giddy with infatuation, she finds any way she can to insinuate herself into the household, into Boyd’s sphere, sinking to extreme flattery and fake friendship.

There’s a wonderful, gentle sense of humour in this novel–mostly evident through Kate’s attempts to deal with adult situations:

Here followed the familiar lecture on how necessary it was that we should not fritter our time away, but work hard at school and get into good universities so we should always have “something to fall back on.” We often felt, though I think this was not Ellen’s conscious intention, that we were only being educated so that later on we could run away from our husbands if we wanted to. 

And while the humour makes this novel wonderful, there’s also the edge of painful adulthood nipping at Kate. As she’s confronted with various moral dilemmas and the complications of adult life, Kate learns that sometimes there are no simple answers. “Truth often sits on the fence,” and actions are not just black and white, but somewhere in between. She learns some painful truths about human behaviour:

I realized something for the first time: that a woman can convey to another woman however young, age being of no account in this, only sex, how she really feels without any man present being aware of it. 

I tend to avoid books with child narrators, but childhood stories told in retrospect can, if written well, be phenomenal. A Little Love, A Little Learning falls into that category. This will make my best-of-year list.

 

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Filed under Bawden Nina, Fiction