229 pages, 1945 (my version 1965)
Apparently Time magazine listed this book as one of their ‘100 Best English-Language Novels from 1923-2005’. I must admit that I had never heard of it, or the author, until Lisa wrote a glowing review of Loving several days ago. “Goodoh!” I thought,”a book set in an Irish Country House during WWII – that’s the book for me!” anticipating a mixture of Elizabeth Bowen, Sarah Waters (as in The Night Watch) and Molly Keane. I have to admit to being disappointed.
Eire was neutral during WWII, and so those Irish with loyalties to Britain had mixed feelings about their place in the war: aware of the Blitz and the hardships suffered across the sea; relieved not to be part of it; guilty that they felt such relief; fearful of the Germans and fearful of the Irish Catholics who would not resist a German invasion. There’s a sense of ‘meanwhile’ and unreality that pervades the book, with the war going on ‘over there’, heightened further when Mrs Tennant, the mistress of Kinalty, a large Irish Country house, leaves the servants to keep things going while she slips over to England to visit her son. In her absence, in spite of coal rationing, the servants (most of whom are also English) relax in front of the fires roaring in the grates to keep the pictures on the wall in good condition. They eat well; they play hide-and-seek in shut-up wings of the house that enclose rooms built as reproduction Greek Temples, and they loiter around the dovecote built as a miniature Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Nothing much happens in this book. There is a lost ring, jealousies and spitefulness between servants, and a love story that emerges probably more from proximity, convenience and lack of other opportunities than any great sweeps of passion. Those ‘upstairs’ are vapid, languid and hypocritical, and probably more reliant on the continued employment of their servants than the servants are themselves.
To be honest, I found the book really hard to follow. I thought that perhaps it was because I was reading it last thing at night after some fairly draining days. The dialogue is rapid-fire, and there is much of it, often without identifying the speaker. Scenes would change from sentence to sentence, without even a paragraph break, and there are no chapters to speak of- just a slightly larger white space on the page. It brought to mind a radio play, where the listener has to do the work in distinguishing one character from another, and there are no visual cues to a change of setting or speakers.
But then I started to wonder if the writing itself was just bad. Take this paragraph, for example, which I had to re-read several times (and yes, I have checked that I haven’t omitted any words or punctuation):
When a few days later as she lay in bed Miss Swift was paid a call by Miss Burch she was able to cut short the thanks having expressed what was necessary on the first of two visits of sympathy Miss Burch had already paid. But on the subject of her symptoms she left nothing out. (p. 118)
I found it quite hard to distinguish the characters, who seemed to come in pairs, and having two characters called Albert only added to the confusion. It was all rather a muddle to me. Nonetheless, many others including Rachel at Booksnob, Lorin Stein at the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sebastian Faulks is a big fan, A Penguin a week liked it and there are several links on Stu’s Dad’s blog as park of his Henry Green Week that alerted Lisa who alerted me!
However, I must admit that after reading a truncated chapter of The Big House: Reality and Representation through Google books, there are symbols and observations here that I missed completely. I don’t think, though, that I want to re-read the book to admire them better.
My rating: 6.5/10
Sourced from: La Trobe University Library
Read because: Lisa at ANZLitLovers wrote a review that interested me.