Five Year Sentence Hardcover – Sep 1978
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About the Author
Bernice Rubens was born in Wales. Her novels include the Booker-Prize winning THE ELECTED MEMBER and A FIVE YEAR SENTENCE, which was shortlisted for the same award. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
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Those forty-six years have taken her (a passive journey) from the gift-wrapping department, up to boiled sweets, and then to marshmallows and fondants, and finally to the top floor of the firm, to chocolate liqueurs and the reward of head cashier (where no one remembers or knows that her first name is Jean). And now, as with the orphanage before it, it was done with; she was retiring, leaving her not only with time on her hands but with a life. And she intended, for the first time in it, doing what she wanted with it.
And then, to mark her retirement, she is presented in the work's canteen with a five-year diary. The sweet factory hasn't quite finished with Miss Hawkins; neither has life. She is used to been told what to do, and obeying, and now the sweet factory (or life; for Miss Hawkins it comes to the same thing), has given her further orders: five more years of living to do before she can retire from that as well.
And so begins Miss Hawkins's new, five year journey, one that Rubens treats with compassion and some humour. A journey with a rather bleak destination but which holds for Miss Hawkins a sort of revenge and maybe even redemption.
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.