Posts Tagged ‘1957 Novel’

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 enthusiasticĀ  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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First edition dust jacket, illustration by the author. As well as being a writer, Frances Faviell was a professional portrait artist. Side note: the girl in the picture is not, as one might expect, the eponymous Thalia, but is instead the novel’s narrator, the fledgling artist, Rachel.

Thalia by Frances Faviell ~ 1957. This edition: Cassell & Company, 1957. Hardcover (re-bound). 288 pages.

When the car was approaching the docks I looked at my aunt and it seemed to me that this – a profile – was all we ever knew of anyone. We can never know all the aspects but merely those which are shown to us. Was she as lonely as I was? She appeared suddenly such a small person and one at whom I had never really looked…

This story is set in the mid-1930s, from the perspective of the narrator looking back some twenty years later at a life-altering segment of time.

Eighteen-year-old Rachel – mother dead, father off on his own business – has been living with her aunt while studying art at the Slade. After disgracing herself by painting an unflatteringly caricatured portrait of the vicar who is her aunt’s dear friend, Rachel is being packed off to France to act as an unpaid companion to the teenage daughter of a family friend, while her aunt, accompanied by the vicar of the portrait, goes off on an excursion to Egypt.

Arriving in the seaside Brittany village of Dinard, home to a thriving Anglo-American community of penny-pinching expatriates resident in a collection of rental villas, Rachel is prepared to make the best of her experience, though she is uneasy as to how she will fit into the household which consists of her charges, fifteen-year-old Thalia and six-year-old Claude, and their beautiful and indolent mother, Cynthia. The Pembertons have settled in Dinard while the father of the family, Colonel Tom Pemberton, returns to India, where he is engaged in a dangerous military operation on the volatile North-West frontier.

Thalia is in the full throes of an awkward and unattractive adolescence. Mousy haired, sulky faced, inflicted with a skin covered by masses of brown, patchy freckles, Thalia is well aware of her mother’s distaste for her.

Cynthia openly rejects and callously neglects her cuckoo’s-child daughter, concentrating all of her maternal instincts onto her beautiful young son. Golden-haired Claude is lovely to look at, but a demanding and obnoxiously spoiled child, every whim pandered to by his mother in her attempt to avoid his tantrums.

Cynthia lives in self-protective seclusion from the real world, nursing her reputed “heart ailment”, drifting in a sleeping-pill induced haze and seldom leaving her bedroom until noon. When she emerges, she wafts off to ill-afforded bridge-playing afternoons, and ill-concealed dalliances with an old lover, Terence Mourne, ex-compatriot of Colonel Pemberton’s, who has resigned his commission due to a disgrace in which young Thalia has had a leading hand.

The household help is a young Frenchwoman of reputed loose morals, much to the enjoyment of the local permanent residents, who view the English and American residents of Dinard as a constantly changing real-life dramatic ensemble, good for a chuckle as they inevitably flout unwritten rules of etiquette, and good as well for a constant low-key fleecing at the hands of their French employees.

Thalia focusses immediately on Rachel, pouring out all her unrequited affection in an attempt to win attention to herself. Rachel, feeling sympathy for Thalia’s status as the unwanted, coldly rejected child of her mother (though not her now-absent father), reciprocates as much as she feels herself able to, though Thalia’s fixation on Rachel takes on an obsessive tone.

When Rachel falls in love with a young Frenchman, Armand, Thalia’s jealousy unleashes her full potential for secretive revenge plots, and the already deeply unhealthy situation at the Pemberton villa deteriorates in a grand and ultimately tragic manner.

Not what one would call a happy book – oh, no! – but enthralling in its depiction of late-adolescent angst – Rachel’s as much as Thalia’s – and of people making a series of bad decisions and finding themselves overwhelmed by the consequences thereof.

Frances Faviell writes her scenes with meticulous attention to telling detail, something I noted in Faviell’s autobiographical account of living through the London Blitz of 1940-41 , A Chelsea Concerto. Her painter’s eye transposes perfectly into her writer’s voice, and the combination is a winning one.

There is almost a clinical feel to Rachel’s unemotional telling of what happened during those months in France which occasionally feels chilled and tamped down, until one reminds oneself that the story is being told from several decades away in time, with the reflection of an adult Rachel attempting to explain the impulsive actions of the teenage Rachel put into a situation very much out of her depth to competently deal with.

A dark, frequently melodramatic bildungsroman of a book, which I found enthralling from start to finish.

My rating: 9.5/10

The half point keeping it from being a full-out “10” is for the main protagonist’s switch of loyalties as the tale winds down; I found that I couldn’t quite believe in her emotional development in this particular way, though as the novel progresses Rachel becomes more and more what we might term an unreliable narrator, and this may well be a deliberate move on the author’s part.

If I could name a perfect shelfmate to Thalia, it would have to be The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Similar high standard of writing, similar settings, similar themes, and, most of all, similar takeaway that growing up can be a deeply bitter process, full of betrayal by and of people once beloved.

 

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