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Barbara Vine: A Dark-Adapted Eye

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There was a working gallows at Wandsworth Prison until 1992. It was tested every six months

Every so often as a rookie novelist, you come across a book that reads like a masterclass in what you want to do. For me, juddering my way up the London Overground line to work, still dazed from the six o’clock alarm and the hour spent plugging away at my second draft,  A Dark-Adapted Eye by Barbara Vine (aka Ruth Rendell) is such a one.

Centred around the execution of Vera Hillyard in the years after World War II, the novel examines the ripple effect of infamy, the way that ‘Murder reaches out through a family, stamping transfers of the Mark of Cain on a dozen foreheads’.

At least that’s one description. Another would be that this is a novel about maternity, about the things society expects of mothers and the things women expect of themselves in that role, and the gap between those ideas and the reality. Or you could say this is a novel about secrets, childhood, war, femininity, storytelling, and outsiders.

The reason for such multivalency is that the novel is told largely from the narrator Faith’s memories of her aunts Vera and Eden during the war years. As that period marked Faith’s transition from childhood to adulthood, her perspective and the things she noticed shifted with each stint at her aunts’ house, where she was sent to escape the London bombing raids. Coupled with this shift in perspective is the revelation of a number of secrets, which tilts the significance of events first one way, then another, and finally wrenches the focus away from the murder itself on to the mystery at the book’s heart.

It’s a complicated structure and one which (she says, thinking of the ragbag of events and motivations saved in a file on this computer) could easily get out of control. Vine steers it mistressfully, though, using two main techniques: she uses inquiries from a biographer interested in profiling Vera Hillyard as a spur and then series of guideposts for unfolding the narrative, and she makes sure each of the large cast of characters looms from the page with a startling set of needs, desires and grudges of his or her own. Most striking is Vera Hillyard — by turns the personification of Sartre’s Bad Faith with her obsessive adherence to rigid rules about deportment and manners, and the pathetic victim of a vicious game the rules of which she can only dimly recognise.

Now and then, the complexity of the structure does necessitate a bit of forcing to make the box click shut. The suggestion, for example, that Eden might have been reluctant to falsify a birth certificate because registry offices had lots of intimidating posters up in those days rings oddly when considered alongside the far more shocking things she is supposed to have done. It also seems strange that the biographer would eventually decide not to write his book because he was ‘defeated’ by the central mystery, a mystery so extraordinary  that, as Faith says, it is hardly ever encountered by normal people — just the sort of thing to have a jobbing hack’s ears pricking up, surely, even if it couldn’t be finally resolved?

For my part, though, I couldn’t help but be grateful for these minor flaws. Seen in light of the overall accomplishment, they felt like the tiny symmetrical imperfections that prove the pearl is real. They hinted at the months of attrition the story must have undergone in its author’s head, and gave me conviction that such craftswomanship might be possible after all. Thanks for the recommendation, Sue.

Picture by Jaime Perez.

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Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm

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A bull much like the one Flora lets out on Cold Comfort Farm

The foreword looms large in Stella Gibbons’ classic, Cold Comfort Farm. Addressed to the forbidding imaginary figure of Mr Anthony Pookworthy esq ABS, LLR, it sets the tone for the hatchet job that Gibbons is about to do on the pastoral literary tradition. From the off, it’s clear that the over-egging of the rural pudding, found in the works of minor writers such as Mary Webb but also giants such as DH Lawrence and – sorry Tom – Thomas Hardy, is not going to get away lightly.

‘As you know, I have spent some ten years of my creative life in the meaningless and vulgar bustle of newspaper offices,’ she tells My Pookworthy. ‘The life of the journalist is poor, nasty, brutish and short. So is his style. You, who are adept at the lovely polishing of every grave and lucent phrase, will realise the magnitude of the task which confronted me when I found, after ten years as a journalist, learning to say exactly what I meant in short sentences, that I must learn, if I was to achieve literature and favourable reviews, to write as though I were not quite sure about what I meant but was jolly well going to say something all the same in sentences as long as possible.’

She then goes on to apologise for presenting him with a book that is ‘meant to be… funny’ and to explain that she has nevertheless tried to write some literary passages on Nature (with a capital ‘nuh’). To mark these out, she has created a star system for the sake of ‘all those thousands of persons not unlike myself, who work in the vulgar and meaningless bustle of offices, shops and homes, and who are not always sure whether a sentence is Literature or whether it is just sheer flapdoodle’.

As a jobbing journalist-cum-would-be-novelist, I found this an absolute joy to read. Not least because it gave me that slap round the face that the best books manage from time to time when they remind you that people decades and decades ago had the same wit, insight and concerns as we do, and that we are by no means as original, sophisticated or radical as we might like to think.

It also surprised me. Having no prior knowledge of Cold Comfort Farm beyond a BBC adaptation I saw as a child and the enthusiasm of a former flatmate who once claimed that Flora Poste was the literary character he was most like on a job application form, I was not expecting a lot (no offence to the former flatmate, who is in fact wildly successful at everything he does).

The book would be a sort of cosy, Sunday-night-television experience, I thought. The Lovejoy of the literary world – a bit of a breather after the rigours of Murdoch and the intricacies of Mantel. I wasn’t expecting feistiness, sharp perceptions and shooting from the hip.

But the genius of the novel (and that’s not a word I throw about lightly) is that, for all its sending up of bad writing and satirical attacks on the literati, it maintains a sunniness and downright funniness that makes it a pleasure to read. The story of Flora Poste gradually turning around the fortunes and outlook of her curmudgeonly cousins and discovering her own path in the process is so delightful and so engaging that you can’t help getting swept up in it.

But perhaps the supreme triumph of the work, the only one of Gibbons’ 24 novels still in print, is that it creates its own language and system for representing the natural world. While most satires do marvellously well at ripping down the things they attack without proposing an alternative, Gibbons’ text lovingly establishes its own pastoral aesthetic in place of the hackneyed exposition it replaces. The scene at the end where Charles comes at last to sweep Flora away from the farm she has transformed is spine-tinglingly lovely. It left me stunned, enchanted, jealous, and sure that I’ll be reading the book many times again.

Picture by Oli R