Bernice Rubens wrote books which were either about the small, fragile, distinctly oddball members of society, with a mordant, warm and tender humour about their oddities, or, her other strand was the large writing about Jewish heritage and identity. This latter writing produced the magnificent Brothers, a veritable saga which rather wrings the reader out emotionally and is a compulsive page-turner (well it was for me)
I first came across Rubens in the first strand - the oddball, on the edge, sad, lonely loser and their story. This was in I Sent a Letter to My Love (Library of Wales), the story of a lonely spinster, later made into a French film.
Five Year Sentence is in the same territory. This time, a sad and lonely spinster does not write letters - but instead, keeps a diary (a five year one, hence the title) The relationship she forms with this diary is distinctly weird.
The book has an arresting beginning (not a spoiler, it is right there at the start:
"Miss Hawkins looked at her watch. It was two-thirty. If everything went according to schedule, she could safely reckon to be dead by six o' clock. Maybe I'll listen to the news first, she thought to herself. I won't need to bother with the weather forecast"
We immediately know that although the book is probably going to cover some quite dark territory, it glitters with humour, and the central character herself, however weird she is (very) possesses an eccentric sense of the amusing - `I won't need to bother with the weather forecast'
Jean Hawkins, raised in an orphanage, under the brutal rule of a ramrod Matron, starting work in a sweet factory, where she stayed, albeit rising slowly up a lowly ladder of promotion, is to retire. And is preparing to exit her unremarkable life. Clearly she doesn't and we follow the fortunes, or otherwise, of this rather peculiar, narrow life. Rubens treats her with some compassion, we do feel for poor Jean, she has a certain weird vitality - though it has to be said there isn't a single character in the novel that any reader could feel warmth towards - mainly because not one of them HAS any warmth or kindness.
Here is where this book parts company with the book it reminded me of (I Sent A Letter To My Love) as though the central characters belonged in the same `loser' category, there was warmth, tenderness and reaching out.
In this book, although we absolutely can have compassion for these wasted, mean, lives, there is something distasteful about all the characters; we are never offered a glimpse of who they might have been had circumstances treated them a little more kindly.
Unlike `I Sent A Letter' this book left me diminished, rather than expanded. Rubens was a fine writer. This is not an example of her best.