Celia Fremlin’s Uncle Paul explores the relationships between sisters, a past crime and a threat in the present. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother, Louise Henderson, who is so overwhelmed by motherhood, nosy, nasty neighbours, and a critical husband that she ignores the warning signs about her new tenant.
Louise has two little girls and a baby boy named Michael. The novel opens with Louise saying:
I’d give ANYTHING-anything-for a night’s sleep.
Louise is so sleep deprived that she even nods off in the waiting room before the baby’s checkup. She tries to tell the nurse that she can’t get the baby to sleep at night; she’s probably hoping for advice, but all she gets is a disinterested, patronizing woman who doesn’t want to hear complaints.
And the patience in Nurse Fordham’s voice was like the swell of the sea, in which a thousand boats can sink unnoticed.
“You see, Mrs. Henderson,” she was explaining, choosing her words carefully, as if Louise could understand human speech little better than the writhing baby in her arms–“you see, as I’m always telling you mothers, you mustn’t worry. He’s gaining splendidly–
Poor Louise. Her husband, Mark, comes home expecting cooked meals (including cooked lunches) and a clean calm house. It doesn’t occur to him to pitch in and instead he complains constantly telling her to keep the children quiet. One of the neighbours hints that she might take her concerns about Louise’s capability as a mother further, and Mark’s mother makes it clear she’s not lending a hand. According to Louise’s mother-in-law, “the most wonderful moment in a woman’s life is when her last child clears off and leaves her free.”
Amidst all the domestic chaos, the sleepless nights, and a husband who acts like the kids are nothing to do with him (I wanted to smack him upside the head), Louise rents out a spare room to a single woman. The new tenant is a schoolteacher named Vera Brandon. It occurs to Louise that there’s something off about Vera Brandon. She’s a little too old and successful to be renting a room, “not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her home an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house.” Why would anyone want to rent a room in a house when the baby cries and fusses all night long–especially if the prospective tenant has options? While the warning signs flash in the periphery of Louise’s brain, she’s overwhelmed, living in perpetual distraction and exhaustion so doesn’t act on her instinct.
This is a domestic crime novel published in 1958 long before the genre became popular. While some novels rely on glamour to whip up the plot, The Hours Before Dawn (the title makes me think of an execution) concentrates on Louise’s life and her isolation in domestic hell. The claustrophobic nature of the plot is alleviated with humour–mostly found in the other characters who either commiserate with Louise or condemn her. She forms a relationship (and I’m using the term loosely here ) with another mother, the delinquent Mrs Hooper. Mrs Hooper, who believes in letting her children be ‘independent,’ frequently dumps her neglected children (Christine and Tony) on Louise, and Louise can’t say ‘no.’ Louise finds that she likes Mrs. Hooper but can’t quite articulate why.
“Hullo-I thought you were in such a hurry to get to your pottery class,” remarked Louise. “Look-can you get your pram out first? No, -Turn it a bit sideways-that’s right.”
A violent jolt form her mother’s rather heavy-handed manoeuvres sent Christine’s cauliflower bouncing on to the gravel, and her shrill, peevish wail silenced further conversation until the cauliflower, rather battered by now, had been restored.
“I always think that’s such a natural way for them to get their vitamins,” beamed Mrs Hooper, as a muddy, mangled bit of stalk dangled from Christine’s mouth on to her knitted jacket. “She got it all by herself. you know, out of the end of the pram. When Tony was a baby, I always used to let him help himself to the shopping on the way home. I remember once he got hold of a mutton chop. Raw. People were terribly shocked,” she added wistfully, with the far-way look of one recalling past triumphs.
The novel is its strongest in the depth of the domestic details of Louise’s life as she tries to cope with constant criticism, no help and very little sleep. The crime element of the plot is not shabby either–after all we’ve all read stories of similar sorts of things happening. But it’s the claustrophobia and Louise’s desperation that rings true here.