I may not be the best person to review this delightful 1978 novel by Jane Gardam, author of OLD FILTH and THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT, since much of my enjoyment comes from the fact that this is MY world she is describing -- a small seaside resort in Northern Britain, such as the one where I grew up. Although this is moved back half a generation to the mid-thirties when, instead of the dying sputters of postwar austerity, there was ALWAYS a band in the bandstand, ices on the promenade, and pierrots on the pier. And preachers on the beach, with tambourines and trombones, tracts and hymn-singing; that part I most certainly remember, and it is central to this book. For the novel's main character, eight-year-old Margaret Marsh, has a father who is a part-time evangelist -- like my own, actually, but of a stricter persuasion. "He and his wife were members of the Primal Saints and most of their free time was spent in the local Primal Hall down Turner Street -- a very nasty street of plum and sandstone and silence." Yet Margaret loves her father and has acquired a prodigious knowledge of Bible verses, all referred to by name and number, as in: "Her feet were on the earth and her life yielding fruit Genesis one eleven." Or: "She wondered two Corinthians five one whether she had seen a home not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." Alas, I have been there also.
The book begins with a exquisitely described trip on a local train to the nearby resort. Given the Saints' prohibition on entertainment and frivolity of all kinds, the excursion is like an entry into a different world for Margaret. Accompanied by her nurse Lydia -- a decidedly secular and sexual young woman, although nominally also a Saint -- her eyes are opened to more than mere seaside attractions. She stumbles upon a great house converted into a sanatorium for shell-shock victims, and then finds Lydia flirting rather physically with the gardener. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is watching the author gradually adjust the language from the child's-eye view to a more adult perspective, as Margaret learns, albeit from a distance, the lineaments of denial and desire, dimly perceives the consequences of divisions in class, and discovers that her idols have feet of clay. The author's focus gradually changes also to the older generations, exploring the frustrations of Margaret's mother, the ripples caused by the return of some old childhood friends, and the machinations of a rich old lady dying in the big house. Readers of Gardam's later books will know the mixture of pathos, humanity, sadness, and occasional bawdy humor that she can create, and will not be surprised when everything connects up in somewhat hopeful fashion at the end -- although I did feel that the postlude here was a little too obviously tacked on. All the same, this is a fascinating piece of time-travel well worth taking, even for those who did not grow up in the atmosphere it describes.
[Although the original edition of this book is out of print, I am reviewing an advance copy of a beautifully-produced Europa Editions paperback, due for release in October 2010. While it is by no means a deep book, it will make a very pleasant read in this edition.]