It is a powerful act of make-believe to put all your foes together in a building and set fire to them; it has also happened in history. At many points throughout The Intruder fantasy and reality come together in this way. In the preface, Gillian Tindall states that she is not writing about identifiable people or places, yet what she relates is firmly based on actual events, including the final tragedy; it is also the stuff of nightmares. ‘History couldn’t possibly be true because it was too awful,’ Jane, the heroine, used to think as a child. This book is the story of her enlightenment.
‘Humankind can only bear so much reality,’ says a quoting voice (getting it wrong, of course) in her mind at one stage of her career. It is hard to believe that Jane, who had received a threadbare fashionable education and had never, for example, heard of George Sand (‘Oh good, I’ll read him’), would have come across this particular comment, but the point is made and is significant.
For the reality presented in the story is indeed hard to bear. Having accompanied her lover Pierre to France, Jane, a young married woman, is trapped there by the outbreak of the Second World War. She and her son spend the next five years in the remote village of St Laurent-la-Rivière. The dragging privations, dangers and heartbreak suffered by the villagers, Jane among them, and the burning of the church at the end, are described with such verisimilitude as to sink the spirit.
The narrative is very skilfully handled in the main and it is odd to find clumsiness in the introductory chapter, where Jane revisits France with a grown-up daughter, child of a post-war marriage. Information has to be imparted to the readers, naturally, but surely after all those years the daughter would hardly be having to ask, about the French lover: ‘You weren’t actually married to him, were you?’ and ‘What work did Pierre do?’ The villagers are persuasively drawn, especially M. Picard, schoolmaster of St Laurent-la-Rivière during the war, survivor of the holocaust, and afterwards mayor of St Laurent-le-Nouveau: not exactly a trimmer, not exactly a coward.
Margaret Forster’s Mother Can You Hear Me? is well-titled and the answer is no. To my knowledge, there is no official Daughter’s Day yet, but this book is one long high-pitched celebration of the situation of daughter misunderstood by mother. There are three women: teenager Sadie Bradbury, Angela Bradbury her mother, and Mary Trewick, Angela’s mother. They are all monsters, either of selfishness or unselfishness; and it sounds much the same. Angela seems the least monstrous, for the story is written from her point of view, but it might be argued that she is the most monstrous.
The story, such as it is, hangs on the various illnesses and eventual death of old Mrs Trewick. The only breath of air from the outside world is the kind that could give her a chill, for all the drama is domestic: squalid rows ending in petty defeat or trivial victory. The settings and situations are humdrum to an extent that must have needed a great deal of imagination. In all this realism there is one serious false note: the Trewicks’ name is Cornish and they live in Cornwall, and yet, though it is made clear that they do not speak Standard English, they do not sound in the least Cornish. The book has vitality and staying-power. The chief reflection one is left with, however, is how dreadful it must be to have a bloody-minded teenaged daughter.
Treasures of Time, a subtle and intelligent book by Penelope Lively, takes its title from that of a fictitious television programme on the life and work of Hugh Paxton, archaeologist. The programme and its making provide the framework of the story. This is a clever technical device, given one of the main themes, which is that things are not what they seem, historically or emotionally or even topographically. The landscape of archaeology as shown on TV is an optical illusion in itself, an ‘England where roads and buildings do not exist, a place of turfed bones and melancholy stones, of scrawled markings in a field of corn, of a million broken pots’. The camera must distort by excluding undesirable objects like the BBC cars and some sheep that have just been struck by lightning; it must also exclude whatever aspects of the human situation are irrelevant to its brief – the impending death of Hugh Paxton’s sister-in-law, the collapse of the engagement between his daughter Kate and Tom.
The characters are intended to deceive. Laura, Hugh Paxton’s widow, is endowed with a putting-down bitchiness which would have enabled her to rule the world if she had had any other talents to go with it: ‘Mary has at last found a publisher for her book, isn’t that lovely for her! It just shows what perseverance will do.’ What she more truly was ‘didn’t somehow come across’, as Tony, the director of the film, says at the end.
The story, after some fumbling at the start (‘Why have you never told me all this before?’), is handled well. Though Kate must be the millionth character in fiction to produce a childhood memory of having come across a relative engaged in unlawful sexual activity, the multiple-recall method is on the whole very suitable for all the contradictory fantasies and hallucinations that the author wishes to convey.
Emma Tennant’s Wild Nights is the most ambitious and the most exciting of these four novels. It gives us reality through the five senses of a child narrator, and is not so much fantasy as a witch’s eye view of the world. ‘I waited for the night journey over the sleeping village, and the school, and the magenta armies of willow-herb beneath us as we flew.’ The child pities and rejects her mother who ‘still lives in the age of cause and consequence’; her companion on the broomstick is Aunt Zita, the gaudy glamorous relative who visits the family in their isolated northern home at the end of every summer.
The ability to fly, possessed by Zita and her niece, is essentially innocent. Stevie Smith once quoted a learned judge who said that as far as he knew there was no law against flying by night. Yet Aunt Zita does stand in opposition to the narrator’s maternal aunt, Thelma, with her good works and her martyr’s smile. The difference between them is seen in terms of gold: Aunt Thelma’s is ‘Christian gold, intangible as a halo’; Aunt Zita’s is solid and pagan. Inevitably she arouses resentment in the villagers, and the main part of the story, ‘North’, ends with a ritual burning before the family go south.
This summary may make the book sound fey, which it is not. It depicts with precision the vigorous life of the everyday world: its relationships, its landscapes. The narrator’s vision is convincingly a child’s, but it also resembles that of William Golding’s primitive man in The Inheritors when he is watching actions such as hair-combing which he has never seen before. Here are some adults in a drawing-room: ‘They all moved back to the sofa, as if the drinks they were holding led them there.’ Much of the novel’s surrealism is no more, and no less, than the unusually faithful presentation of things noticed for the first time.