“All time is one” can be seen as the theme of this unusual book. Set in the period before and during the First World War, this is no standard work of fictional autobiography but an almost mystical book about family, relationships and the sense that the past, the present and the future are all one. A deep work of fiction, it not only delves into the psyche of people who feel that they have a unique sense of the past, but also the importance of place in ‘hearing’ what has gone on before. It also looks at children who grow up with a mature view of their own attractions and responsibilities. There are times when the writing is stilted, bewildering and multi layered; there are also times when the reader can revel in the overturning of what an imperious character expects and demands. On the surface this seems to be a small book, but such is its depth and complexity that it turns out to be a big read. I was grateful to receive a copy from Dean Street Press as part of the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint.
Vere and James are twins born to a middle class family in London in the late nineteenth century. Together with their older sister, Lalage, they form an unusual group of precocious children in the social scene of parties and entertainments. They are close to their mother who is widowed relatively early and who provides a strange home life for her children, who grow into young adults who experience vivid hearing and sights of long dead people in the places where they lived. They have a peculiar relationship with their mother’s mother, Lady Vallant, who seeks to impose her will on her adult children and grandchildren. She is particularly attentive to James, as he begins to take responsibility for not only his sisters but the urge to volunteer for the Army. She tries to use her money and her iron determination to impose her will, but comes up against the narrator and main character of Vere for one of the monumental tussles of the book. There is a mystery at the heart of the book which only Vere can appreciate, and inspires many of her later actions. Her relationship with an actor is touching and unusual; this is far from a war book despite the time in which it is set.
Although it was originally published in 1936, this feels like a much more modern novel, as Vere’s honest narration reveals her own hesitations and fears, despite her clear sense of a mission to release her mother and others from her grandmother’s domination. Without clarification of a mystery of long ago childhoods, there are so many locked in emotions that no one in the family can truly live their lives. I found this a fascinating book, full of social history and insights into the human condition centred in a challenging family. It is not an easy read, and the style can be at times disjointed and opaque. Overall it is a strong and powerful testimony of a young woman in a taxing family situation, and how she uses her unusual gifts and strong relationship with her twin to survive and rescue her family.
As you can see, this is one of several Furrowed Middlebrow reprints I have reviewed. If you study their blog http://furrowedmiddlebrow.blogspot.com/ you will discover many pieces about searching out obscure books and authors. There is even news of more books to come in January, which I am excited about!