Archive for the ‘1950s’ Category

The Scapegoat by Daphne du Maurier ~ 1957. This edition: Doubleday, 1957. Hardcover. 348 pages.

Ah, nothing like a good old gothicky doppelgänger story, right along the lines of Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar, and Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree. Suspend your disbelief, embrace your acceptance of lucky coincidence, and come along, step inside…

Middle-aged Englishman John, introverted historian-lecturer in French history back home in Britain, and, incidentally, very accomplished French linguist (this is important!), is facing an existential crisis of sorts as he mopes through his summer holiday in his beloved France.

John is heading for a religious retreat in a Trappist monastery near Le Mans, which he hopes will help him chart his personal path forward. Utterly alone in the world, with no responsibilities and no one responsible for him, he feels that his life has no meaning, that he is an utter failure, and he debates stepping out of the world, though whether he intends to do so literally or figuratively is not specified; it is possible John himself does not know how far he is prepared to go to find peace.

A coincidental meeting with a man who is his exact physical double results in a night of sharing life stories (though one of the pair is, it will soon be discovered, less than fully forthcoming in his private confessions) and heavy drinking; when John awakes in his hotel room the next morning, he is dressed in his double’s clothing, and there in the room are the other’s personal effects. His own things have vanished.

Still drink-befuddled, when a chauffeur shows up to collect “Jean, Comte de Gué”, John stumbles along, bemused by his dilemma, his terse replies to “his” employee being taken in stride, as if a sullen silence is an accepted character trait of the vanished count.

John finds himself decanted at the front door of a large but desperately rundown French château, and giving in to an impulse, decides to carry on with the mistaken identity, to see what will happen next.

What happens is that everyone whom he comes in contact with – not just the family servants but a brother, sister, aged (and drug-addicted) mother, highly pregnant wife, an amorous sister-in-law, a precocious and religion-obsessed eleven-year-old daughter, and even a beautiful Hungarian mistress – accept him as the real Jean, much to his (and the reader’s) shocked surprise.

Over the period of one intense week, John-Jean discovers the many dark secrets of the Comte’s family, and of Jean de Gué himself. Not knowing where the real Jean is and what his intentions are, but assuming from much he has found out that his double has departed permanently from his complicated life to reinvent himself elsewhere, John allows himself to be drawn into his angst-beset new family; he soon develops a sense of responsibility and even of love for the troubled members of “his” household.

But can he really take Jean’s place? What secrets doesn’t he know, and how will they effect his attempts to heal old wounds and bring about better times for all of the people who are looking to him for leadership?

Tragedy strikes; a fortune becomes accessible; and the real Jean makes contact: he wants to return.

What happens next? I won’t tell, you must read it for yourself.

Could this sort of thing actually happen in the real world? Not likely, but it makes a grand fictional drama, dark as night and emotionally fraught on a multitude of levels.

One of Daphne du Maurier’s best, right up there with the also-improbable but mesmerizingly memorable Rebecca.

Let’s give it a 9/10. Definitely a keeper.

 

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The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham ~ 1957. This edition: Penguin, 1971. Paperback. ISBN: 140014403. 220 pages.

Lutescent.

Isn’t that a great word? I hardly ever run into it in fiction reading, though it’s a relatively common descriptor in botany and entomology. “Of a yellowish colour” is the nuts and bolts definition, but in practice it is generally used to describe an overall golden glow, a tint rather than a deeper dye.

The children – perhaps that should be in quotations? – with whom this science fiction – horror? – novel are concerned are definitely lutescent, what with their glossily sheened skin and their beautiful golden eyes. (Though Wyndham might not actually use the term; I thought he did but I can’t find it on reexamination of the pertinent bits of text.)

Almost inhumanly beautiful, they are, which encompasses the whole point of this morally wrought tale. They’re not human. So, when it appears that the existence of the golden ones may threaten the existence of humankind-as-we-know-it, do all the normal rules of civilized behaviours apply?

That is the Big Question.

Let me back up.

Here’s the story.

Strange events in the peaceful English village of Midwich!

Within a defined circle of countryside, with Midwich roughly at the centre, at 10:17 P.M. on a mild-though-damp September evening, everything goes to sleep. Insects, birds, farm animals, and most definitely the humans. They drop where they stand, frozen in a sort of catatonic trance. (The lucky ones are caught indoors or in  bed; some of the people out in the elements – well – not so good.)

The first edition dust jacket depicts a clever idea dreamt up by some of the army people to define the edge of the Sleep Zone. Canary in a cage, long stick, bucket of whitewash to mark the point where the canary keels over. Very ingenious. Oh, later extended to the innovation of a cageful of ferrets hanging from a helicopter by a long cable, with a man on the ground with binoculars signalling where the danger point kicks in. Perfect. This is a great book, full of deliciously understated humour.

The outside world realizes something fishy is going on the next morning, as telephone lines don’t respond and buses mysteriously fail to continue on their post-Midwich routes.

Here comes the army! (Not to mention M.I.) A high-flying scout plane catches a glimpse of a strangely shaped dome in the epicentre of the sleep zone; a closer-flying plane crashes, pilot apparently overcome by whatever-it-is.

A nerve gas?? Could it be…possibly…The Russians?! (Or “the Ivans”, as they are referred to by one of the side characters, which I must confess amused me greatly for some strange reason. Oh, dear. Not sure what that says about me. Probably nothing good.)

Nope, it’s not the Russians. It’s – wait for it – ALIENS! (Hey, it’s Wyndham. Was this ever even a question?)

The “dome” vanishes.

Everyone wakes up. (Except for a few unlucky souls caught in burning houses, or overexposed to the elements.)

Life returns to normal. For a month or three, anyway.

Because quite suddenly, quite coincidentally (it at first appears) there are an astonishing number of pregnancies becoming evident in the population of Midwich. As in, every woman of child-bearing age. Virgin schoolgirls, sedate housewives, the younger partner of the local lesbian couple, the adult daughter of the local squire and her youngish stepmother. All of them. Sixty-plus expectant mothers, all at the same stage of gravidness, estimated date of conception…well…you figure it out.

How interesting! How strange. A press ban is imposed and – this being England in the 1950s, an apparently rule-abiding place – the press politely abides by the word from on high. Nothing happening at Midwich. Just a little conceptional anomaly. Move along. Nothing to see here…

The babies are born, all of them – aside from the few obviously “naturally” conceived – with perfectly formed limbs, silken skin, and those golden eyes. And strange powers of mind. For the babies appear to be able to compel their mothers to certain actions. Baby hungry? Mother stops in mid stride on the high street, plunks herself down on the curb, and hikes up her blouse. Baby poked by diaper pin? Mother turns pin on herself, stabbing and stabbing in self punishment. Little things like that.

Interesting.

The babies show astonishing growth, maturing roughly twice as fast as a normal child would. And there is a remarkable phenomenon becoming apparent: the children all communicate by thought. All of the girls are linked, as are all of the boys. When a special school is set up to a.) educate and b.) study, it becomes the norm for the lessons to be taught to only one representative of each sex, the others showing mastery of the skill or concept as soon as the representative learner masters it.

Where’s this all going, you ask?

In a sentence: Humanity-as-we-know-it is doomed.

These are our replacements, sent to colonize Earth by an alien super race.

Well, by George! This can’t be allowed to happen, can it?!

But…but…but…they’re children.

I am stopping here. This is a vintage science fiction book worth reading, for under all the clichés and stereotypes and era-expected maunderings, it’s rather clever and nicely thought-provoking and (to borrow a cliché myself) a rattling good read, in a well-mannered, deeply English sort of way.

(“The Ivans.” Ha! Still makes me laugh. Can’t you just hear the plummy yet deadpan way in which this is intoned, speaker with one eyebrow cocked? Gorgeous.)

8/10.

Oh, yes. The Midwich Cuckoos was used as the basis for the now-classic 1960 horror film Village of the Damned, as well as its deeply panned 1995 remake. Don’t let that put you off. The book is really jolly good.

 

 

 

 

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Robinson by Muriel Spark ~ 1958. This edition: Penguin, 1987. Paperback. ISBN: 0-14-002157-4. 175 pages.

I’m not sure who this is supposed to represent; none of the male characters in the novel struck me as even slightly resembling this melancholy fellow. One must assume it is supposed to be Robinson himself, and then gently avert the eyes.

I did wish to go home, but not that I had never come away. If I had stayed at home, there might have been a fire in the house, or I might have been run over, or murdered, or have committed a mortal sin. There is no absolute method of judging whether one course of action is less dangerous than another.

En route to the Azores, a small passenger airliner crashes on a tiny Atlantic island.

Twenty-six people perish; three are thrown free and survive, to be nursed back to health by the reclusive ex-priest Miles Mary Robinson and his young ward Miguel.

The island Robinson, named after its most recent owner, once was home to a thriving small community of productive farms and orchards, but all that now remains is a barely surviving pomegranate orchard, the crop of which is harvested by a crew of workers who visit once a year by ship, to take off the fruit and deliver Robinson his year’s supply of canned food.

The boat carrying the harvesters is due in three months, and as there is no way of contacting the outside world – Robinson has no radio set and disclaims any desire for such intrusive devices – the castaways settle down to wait out their ninety days.

Our narrator, January Marlow, is a young widow with a teenage son. She ran away from school to be clandestinely married; her much older husband died within six months of the wedding, leaving widow and as-yet-unborn child with a modest inheritance. She has created a satisfactory life for herself, working as a freelance writer; she was researching a book on islands, which accounts for her presence on the doomed airplane.

The two other survivors are men. Jimmie Waterford is the charming and seemingly vague cousin of Robinson, Tom Wells a smarmy publisher of a spiritualist magazine, with a suitcase full of good luck charms and a packet of secret papers.

At first the new society ticks along reasonably well. The men supplement Robinson’s fast-dwindling food supply by fishing and the odd wild bird or rabbit shot for the pot. There’s also a goat, who provides milk. January wonders why Robinson doesn’t grow any vegetables, as the climate of the island is perfect for a wide variety of crops. She inquires, and Robinson brushes off her hints.

As injuries heal, cigarettes are rationed, and boredom sets in, tensions among the four adults start to rise, the most serious of which are wound up by Robinson’s strict religious views. A Roman-Catholic of strong anti-Marian beliefs, Robinson scorns both January’s rosary and Tom’s collection of superstition-promoting good luck medals.

Young Miguel is fascinated by both, causing Robinson to take firm steps to remove such temptations from the reach of his young protegé, whom he is educating in his own ascetic beliefs.

Secret tunnels, shark infested surrounding waters, and a volcanic fissure in the rocks known as the Furnace add to the atmosphere of potential impending doom. Not to mention the presence of the wrecked plane, the twenty-six shallow graves, and the macabre collection of fire-scorched “salvage”.

Tempers are ever tighter; hasty words are spoken. And then one day a trail of blood and bloodied clothing is discovered by a hysterical Miguel. It leads to the edge of the Furnace.

Robinson is nowhere to be found.

Who killed Robinson? And why? The survivors eye each other with deep suspicion; speculation turns to open accusation. Will another act of violence occur?

Okay, this sounds all very melodramatic murder mystery, but that’s just the background stuff. For what Muriel Spark really wants to talk about here is Roman Catholic doctrine, and the development of one’s spiritual self. The mixture as seen in so many of her subsequent books, in fact. (Robinson is only her second novel, after The Comforters, 1957.)

After converting to Catholicism in 1954, religion was very much on Muriel Spark’s mind; she used her fictions as the backdrop to numerous theological discussions all the way through her writing career, something she had in common with her literary mentor Graham Greene.

A cover artist’s rendition of the charming Bluebell, cat of many sterling qualities and unexpected talents.

This is an utterly odd book in so many ways, as are so many of Spark’s novels. It’s also an extremely clever, strangely engaging, and darkly humorous one – a ping-pong-playing, water-loving cat adds charm and comic relief to some of the bleaker passages – and (to use an apt cliché) one can’t look away.

Our possibly murderous castaways are rescued at the 11th hour, after some startling developments, and the last we hear of Robinson-the-island, rumoured relic of Atlantis, it is sinking beneath the ocean waves.

Was it ever a real place, wonders January? Did all that really happen?

First edition dust jacket, one of the most pleasing examples of well thought out and aesthetically pleasing cover illustration I’ve come across in a very long time.

I liked Robinson quite a lot more than I thought I might from its spare back cover précis. (The cover illustration of my copy also might have had something to do with my hesitation to engage – that dude looks downright creepy!)

Posthumous cheers then to Dame Muriel, whose 100th anniversary of birth is coming up in just a few days, February 1, 2018.

The literary world is gently buzzing with tributes; Muriel Spark’s books are being dusted off and republished in new editions, and read and re-read by devotees new and old. Reviews are already showing up in enthusiastic profusion online; I add my own to the list, and I will doubtless be joining a host of other readers revisiting Muriel Spark in greater depth as the year progresses.

My own personal rating for Robinson: 7.5/10.

 

 

 

 

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Out of the Deeps by John Wyndham ~ 1953. This North American edition: Ballantine, 1969. Originally published in Great Britain as The Kraken Wakes. Paperback. 182 pages.

Fellow British science fiction writer Brian Aldiss once sneered at John Wyndam for the lack of desperate drama in his plots – I believe “cozy catastrophes” was the term he used. And I have to say I get what he was saying, and that the snub has some basis.

Wyndham’s “What if?” sci-fi concoctions are disaster novels with the same relation to real life as, say, Agatha Christie’s decorous murder mysteries. Everybody is very, very civilized about everything, even when in situations of utter horror, and while in the throes of deepest emotion.

Restful, in a way, reading these. Subject matter having nothing to do with the overlying tone. Everything’s under control here, move along there, don’t panic.

At the start of this story, 1950-something, post-war England is getting back to its new normal. Social order is as peaceful as it can be, rationing is a thing of a not-so-distant past, conditions in general are not too dreadful on the home front. The Cold War is looming, of course, Russia and the United States are busy trading insults and placing spies and building up their arsenals, but England has her head down and things are plugging along.

In Wyndham’s slightly modified Great Britain, a new radio and television broadcaster has established itself, the E.B.C. – English Broadcasting Corporation – in direct well-behaving competition with the fusty B.B.C. – and Mike and Phyllis Watson, newly married – are both employed there as journalists and story researcher-writers.

They’ve had some interesting experiences working for the E.B.C., the most recent being their witnessing – along with a whole shipful of other people – the strange phenomenon of large red “fireballs” raining down from the sky and landing in the ocean.

Reports of these are coming in from all around the globe, and the odd fighter plane gets a shot off, but no one can identify what these objects are. Scientists get going and do their stuff. A deep-diving “bathyscope” (based on the real-life undersea-exploring Bathysphere manned by William Beebe in the 1920s and 30s) is sent down to the site where some of the fireballs were seen to enter the ocean. Transmission is cut off suddenly – the cable is pulled up melted off (!) – the bathyscope and its two crew members have vanished! (Mike and Phyllis are there for the whole thing.)

And then the fireballs stop coming. And things go quiet for a year or so.

Cue foreboding music…

One day people – and yes, by “people” I mean Mike and Phyllis, and a few percipient others – start noticing an unusual pattern in ships going down with very little notice in various parts of the world’s oceans. And always above the deepest marine trenches, in places where those fireballs were seen splashing down. Trans-oceanic cable-laying ships, fishing boats, a Japanese passenger liner, the Queen Anne, pride of Great Britain’s transatlantic fleet!…and a warship…an American luxury liner… What is going on!?!

Could it be The Russians?

Or something more sinister? Something from…drumroll…OUTER SPACE?

Cutting right through all the drama, I’ll be a big old plot spoiler and tell you that yes, yes it is.

Space Aliens.

Those fireballs were actually transport pods, from one of the gas giant planets, or so the theory goes, hence their attraction to the highest pressure bits of the world’s oceans. They’re absolutely not friendly. They spit back atomic bombs aimed in their general direction, they start sending up very icky “sea tanks” to harvest things (people!) living along the sea shores. But, when the humans figure out how to destroy these, things again go silent.

Another year or two passes. And then, one day someone notices…hey, isn’t that the sea level rising? And there are sure a lot of icebergs about. What is happening to the polar ice caps?!

Yup. The sub-marine aliens are melting the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, and things are about to get very rough for the land-dwellers of Earth.

But good old Mike and Phyllis rock right along taking everything in stride. Needless to say, they come through everything – a close call by sea tank attack, the inundation of much of Great Britain, the breakdown of civilization as they know it – with flying colours, thanks to their level-headed pre-planning-for-disaster and a few handy connections among the scientist community who slip them the occasional bit of insider info.

I won’t divulge the ending, but it’s looking sort of like humankind might survive after all, thanks to the work of Japanese scientists: “A very ingenious people, the Japs; and in their more sociable moments, a credit to science.”

Uh huh.

Sheer period piece science fiction, and despite my frivolous tone above, it’s actually pretty darned good for its time and genre. Wyndham can write, and though he slides over the trickier bits – no sense slowing down the story with pesky details – he spins a (sometimes) genuinely chilling tale.

Final score: 7/10 for Mike and Phyllis, and the plucky band of true-blue Brits who’ve kept the radio channels running all this time. Not to mention those science-minded “Japs”.

Here’s a little bonus I must share. The original British title of this book is The Kraken Wakes, taken from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1830 poem. Enjoy!

The Kraken Wakes

Below the thunders of the upper deep;
Far, far beneath in the abysmal sea,
His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
The Kraken sleepeth: faintest sunlights flee
About his shadowy sides: above him swell
Huge sponges of millennial growth and height;
And far away into the sickly light,
From many a wondrous grot and secret cell
Unnumbered and enormous polypi
Winnow with giant arms the slumbering green.
There hath he lain for ages and will lie
Battening upon huge sea-worms in his sleep,
Until the latter fire shall heat the deep;
Then once by man and angels to be seen,
In roaring he shall rise and on the surface die.

 

 

 

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Twelve Girls in the Garden by Shane Martin ~ 1957. This edition: Morrow, 1957. Hardcover. 216 pages.

This satisfactorily beguiling romp of a mystery novel – final body count four-ish, if I’ve added up correctly – stars an elderly American archaeologist, one Professor Challis – who has a nose for curious situations and an unerring talent for chasing down solutions to said problems in a gently circular way.

The Professor, fresh back from some years in Greece (ancient Minoan civilization his speciality) is engaged in writing up his latest findings at the British Museum. Slightly bored with his incarceration (as it were) in the bustling city versus his beloved sun-baked Greek countryside, Professor Challis wanders into a neighbourhood where he once had close friends.

While peering in the window of a house he once knew well, the Professor is accosted by the current owner – the taciturn Mr. Flett – and is immediately embroiled in a rather bizarre scenario involving a mysteriously missing sculptor who disappeared on the eve of a crucial solo exhibition, said sculptor’s twelve masterful statues of beautiful women (all – or at least the heads of all – modelled from life) displayed about a London garden, a beautiful young woman who bears a strong resemblance to one of those statues, and a number of intriguing male characters, some of whom carry firearms as a matter of course.

Suffice it to say that this is a mystery in which art, love, greed and malice play equal parts, and that Professor Chalice faces some danger to life and limb before all is sorted out, with his crucial assistance.

Not bad at all, for a charcter – and a writer – I hadn’t ever heard of before.

Turns out that Shane Martin is the pseudonym of Australian journalist-writer George H. Johnston, whose fictionalized autobiography My Brother Jack is something of a classic of Australian literature.

Moving to the Greek island of Hydra in the 1950s with his wife, the equally talented writer Charmaine Clift, and their four young children, Johnston took to writing “pot boilers” in between his more serious literary attempts, five such light novels under the name Shane Martin, of which Twelve Girls in the Garden is apparently the easiest to find – the rest having dropped out of sight, being virtually invisible on all of the usual used book sites.

I know this because I looked.

Darn.

Okay, now check this out, fellow readers – especially (perhaps) fellow Canadian readers. Here’s an intriguing connection for you to revel in. George and Charmaine were connected in a most intimate way with the late great Leonard Cohen. Read all about it here!

That was unexpected. Everything is connected, isn’t it? How many degrees of separation between everybody on earth? Ha!

Back to the book – head spinning a bit because of Leonard – I was satisfied in that the mystery at the heart of Twelve Girls is hardish to guess – it took me almost to the denouement to figure out the key twists – and the character of Professor Challis is charmingly delightful. I’d happily follow him through the other four companion books –The Saracen Shadow (1957), The Man Made of Tin (1958), The Myth is Murder (1959), and A Wake for Mourning (1962) – if only I could get my greedy hands on them.

Loved the writing in this one – it danced and rollicked and teased and just generally pleased.

Here’s a vignette from a visit to a junk dealer’s shop:

In no way was it particularly different from any other secondhand dealer’s shop that lies outside the orbit of fashionable patronage. It had that dubious air of muddle and secrecy, with a flavor of ignorant stockpiling, that might lead one quite mistakenly to believe in the possibility of discovering a rare Memlinc or a genuine van Eyck or, at worst, a quite good Byzantine icon underneath its coating of discolored varnish and grime. It followed the usual custom of displaying in its windows and on the pavement outside only the tawdriest of trash – cumbersome pieces of furniture which were either blatantly spavined or suspiciously wormy; chamber pots of impressive size and florid decor but quite lacking in handles; chipped saucers filled with wedding rings, synthetic gems, old coins, and unmatched earrings; cases of medals concerned with forgotten gallantries in campaigns against Kaffir, Boer, and Afridi; mid-Victorian specimen cabinets choked either with geological fragments or brittle moths and insects; a tray of surgical instruments that looked as if they must have been used by Crippen; miscellaneous articles of chinoiserie brought from Foochow in that free-enterprising period when taste had declined in inverse ratio to the prosperity of the English tea trade; a varied but rather damaged selection of Spode, Staffordshire, and Rockingham; the usual china dog and Negro boy; a stuffed owl, solemnly dusty; and a group of hideously colored plaster statuettes of girls in the cloche hats, shingles, and alluring postures of the twenties.

The whole goat’s-nest, Professor Challis suspected, was to mislead the gullible into supposing that since no human being who had not been certified could possibly wish to buy anything from a display so ghastly, it followed that the real treasures must be inside, secreted in some glittering Ali Baba’s cavern to which only the cognoscenti had the key…

Yes, wordy and rambling and slightly, deliberately sarcastic, but with the malice tempered with good humour. It takes some time to get to the point, but the journey is worth the trip.

Here’s a nice enthusiastic  8/10, partly because I hadn’t expected the tale to be so erudite.

What would please me even more is a whole stack of Johnston/Martin’s books to pick through for evening amusement when the everyday needs to be escaped from for a bit.

I don’t think I’m done with this writer – this feels like a first step on a book quest journey, in fact.

Anyone else know of him, and his other works? Is he worth pursuing, do you think?

 

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Tamarac by Margaret Hutchison ~ 1957. This edition: Macmillan, 1957. Hardcover. 282 pages.

A show of hands, please – who has heard of Margaret Hutchison?

I hadn’t, and it saddens me.

This novel was a pleasant surprise, and it appears to be the writer’s only one, though I found a reference to her working on her “next novel” in a snippet of a Margaret Laurence biography I stumbled on online. Apparently Margaret Hutchison – “Hutch” – was mentoring Margaret Laurence in the writerly sense when they both met in Vancouver back in the 1950s.

Intriguing.

Google draws an utter blank, beyond the secondhand copies of Tamarac for sale. And there aren’t too many of those out there, either.

So was there ever a second novel? I am exceedingly curious, because this first one, rather obviously autobiographical in the way of so many first novels, is beautifully written. Margaret Hutchison is comfortable with her words; it’s a smooth, engaging read, even in the most angst-ridden passages. Which takes some doing, doesn’t it?

Note I mentioned the presence of angst. It’s in there, in spades. Well, expectedly so, regarding the subject and its era.

Sometime between the two world wars, young Janet Cameron grows up with her two sisters in an isolated (and fictional) sawmill town named Tamarac located somewhere in the (real) British Columbia Kootenay region. Her childhood was a golden time; she looks back on it with fond nostalgia and true grief for its passing.

For not only has her childhood vanished, the town itself is disappearing. With the advent of the Second World War and the natural attrition of a resource extraction based industry – the loggers have harvested all the available trees and the most prominent town structures are torn down as the sawmill equipment is removed for installation elsewhere – Tamarac is doubly doomed.

Janet, now grown up and working as a schoolteacher, returns to the area to attend her father’s funeral, and the journey back triggers cascades of memory of her life to date: that golden childhood, and then the harsh reality of working for a living in a career she feels forced into, and eventually a brutally disappointing love affair. The mixture as seen so often, in fact.

Margaret Hutchison handles her saga well; it moves along quite briskly most of the time, with occasional slowings-down to dwell on particularly meaningful episodes.

Tamarac is hard on the heels of novels such as those created by Ethel Wilson; there is a similar concentration on the landscape as a crucial influence on the characters’ psyches. Hutchison approaches Wilson’s style without exactly copying it – the two were in fact writing at much the same time – but falls just the slightest bit short. As a developing writer, what might have been her voice in subsequent works?

Hutchison’s strengths as a more-than-competent writer outweigh her occasional lapses as a plot developer. I liked this novel a lot, and I would be thrilled to find that there is more out there from this thoughtful and articulate author. Sadly, I suspect that she may have been a one-book wonder. I wonder what the rest of her personal story was?

To sum up:

  • Not exactly a bildungsroman; our protagonist experiences most of her growing pains as an adult dealing with adult issues – love and loss and all that deep stuff. Her adolescence is challenging in places but is passed over without wallowing in teen sadness; she grows up fast but not because of any particular trauma; much is asked of her early and she steps forward to shoulder her responsibilities.
  • Tamarac is a thoughtful and appreciative evocation of a particular place and time; the author makes it very clear that she has a keen eye for natural surroundings, as well as the human places – and people – which encroach upon the wild.
  • Much of the melancholy of this novel comes from the time of its setting: Great Depression-era rural Canada, and then the bitter onset of what we all know – characters and readers alike – will be another horrible war.
  • The ending is something of an anticlimax, just a little too perfectly rounded. But it works in the greater context of what comes before it in the story, and is on the whole fairly satisfying. We are certain that Janet will calmly find her own way into whatever is coming next for her; she has proven herself tenacious and resilient so far, and we wish her well in her future.
  • My rating: 7.5/10. (Not a perfect novel, but well on its way, and I liked it.)

And here is our mysterious writer. Does anyone know what happened after Tamarac?

 

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Old Herbaceous by Reginald Arkell ~ 1950. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1951. Illustrated by John Minton. Hardcover. 155 pages.

The second book of 2018 was something of a soft landing after my hair-straight-back initiation into the somewhat frenetic world of Elizabeth Bowen.

This next one is as straightforward as it gets; pure narrative of the simpler sort. I hasten to say it has all of the merits of its genre, that of the nostalgia piece, vide Miss Read and her ilk.

Elderly Bert Pinnegar, lifelong gardener at the “Big House” of his quiet English village, sits at his cottage window musing over his past, from humble beginnings through the stages of promotion from garden boy to head gardener, and on into retirement and inevitable physical decline of old age.

It all started so long ago…

Opening her cottage door, on a May morning some eighty-odd years ago, Mrs. Pinnegar, the cowman’s wife, had received a shock, and no mistake. There, on the door-step, wrapped in an old cotton skirt, was a baby, as newly-born as made no difference. Mrs. Pinnegar, a kindly soul, with six children of her own, passed the village maidens in review. Several of them were ‘expecting,’ but Mrs. Pinnegar, unofficial midwife and friend of all families, knew their dates to a nicety and the problem was not so easily solved. There had been no gipsies through the village for weeks. . . . Being a practical woman, the cowman’s wife picked up the parcel the fairies had brought her; christened it Herbert, after an uncle who was killed in the Crimea, and set about her Monday’s wash. When you had six of your own, one more didn’t matter.

Naturally, there was a bit of chatter at the time, but unexpected arrivals never made front-page news in an English village. A rick fire and talk of the Prussians in Paris were much more exciting. Young Herbert settled down in his new home; seasons came and went; the new self-binder started tying the sheaves with string . . .

Still, being picked up on a door-step did take the gilt off the gingerbread a bit; especially when you’d got along in the world and become someone in the village. True, there was nobody left to throw his birth in his teeth. Everybody was dead—every man Jack of them! Old folk went and new folk came, until you couldn’t find a single soul who remembered anything. Very soon he’d go, too, and then there’d be nothing left but houses—and gardens.

Funny, that! You planted a tree; you watched it grow; you picked the fruit and, when you were old, you sat in the shade of it. Then you died and they forgot all about you—just as though you had never been. . . . But the tree went on growing, and everybody took it for granted. It always had been there and it always would be there. . . . Everybody ought to plant a tree, sometime or another—if only to keep them humble in the sight of the Lord.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about this gentle story which can’t be imagined from the excerpt above. Arkell rambles along, documenting the highs and lows of his invented countryman’s life. There is some garden lore tucked in here and there, but not enough to take it to anything like a “garden” book. It’s a nostalgia piece, pure and simple, and the author makes no attempt to take it beyond that level.

Pleasant enough in its own way, and I passed an evening with Our Bert in mild enjoyment. Engaging enough to keep one entertained. If you like Miss Read, you’ll like Reginald Arkell.

I think I mentioned something of the same regarding the other of Arkell’s bucolic novels which I read during my 2014 Century of Books, Trumpets Over Merriford. And I believe I used the term “quaint” for that one, and it applies equally aptly to Old Herbaceous.

Looking at my rating of Trumpets Over Merriford, I see I gave it a 6.5 rating. I’m feeling rather more generous regarding the tale of the gardener. Let’s say 7.5/10. Because it’s a nice little thing, relaxing to read in between bouts with the seed catalogues this planning time of year for those of us with horticulture as part of our lives.

 

 

 

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