A View of the Harbour – Elizabeth Taylor

I am steadily making my way through Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, such a terrific writer she is. All the novels I’ve read so far – A Game of Hide and Seek, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, The Soul of Kindness, A Wreath of Roses – are superb. A View from the Harbour is another addition to this stellar list.

A View of the Harbour is a beautifully written, nuanced story of love, aching loneliness, stifled desires, and the claustrophobia of a dead-end seaside town.

The main plotline revolves around Beth Cazabon, a writer; her husband Robert, the town’s doctor; and Beth’s friend Tory Foyle who lives next door and is divorced. However, like the wonderful The Soul of Kindness, this is a book with an ensemble cast where the lives of the other members of the community are interwoven into that of the Cazabons. This is a drab, dreary seaside town where for desperate want of drama and excitement, the lives of its residents become fodder for speculation and gossip.

The opening of A View of the Harbour unfurls like the brushstrokes of a painting. A vivid panorama of the harbour is captured – the cry of the seagulls, the trawlers heading out to the open sea and the subtle transformation of the harbour landscape from a place dotted with derelict buildings to that of a picture postcard town once you are further away at sea; the distance blurring the drab contours of the harbour front.

No gulls escorted the trawlers going out of the harbour, at tea-time, as they would on the return journey; they sat upon the rocking waters without excitement, perching along the sides of little boats, slapped up and down by one wake after another. When they rose and stretched their wings they were brilliantly white against the green sea, as white as the lighthouse.

To the men on the boats the harbour was at first dingy and familiar, a row of buildings, shops, café, pub, with peeling plaster of apricot and sky-blue; then as the boats steered purposefully from the harbour-mouth to sea, houses rose up in tiers the church tower extricated itself from the roofs, the lettering on the shops faded and the sordid became picturesque.

This view is something aspiring painter Bertram Hemingway is keen to capture but is continuously defeated in his efforts. Bertram is now retired and wants to spend his leisure days dabbling in his hobbies – painting and seeing more of the world. He resides in a room above the town pub called Anchor and has promised the owner to deliver a painting of his own at the end of his stay. Bertram is an outsider in this seaside town, an object of curiosity and while he takes an interest in the lives of its residents, enjoying the prospect of helping them whenever he can, he makes sure he is not deeply involved. He prefers to remain on the town’s fringes, happy with his role of an observer.

And what he and the reader observe are the lives of the residents playing out, their daily struggles and how they are beset by a sense of chronic unhappiness. Tory Foyle lives alone, her husband of many years has abandoned her for a younger woman and she is trying to come to terms with the fact that she must fend for herself. Her son, studying in a university, is a constant source of worry to her. But despite this setback, Tory is a strong-willed woman and has not let herself slide into apathy. She remains stylish and poised, maybe even a little cold and aloof.

Her best friend Beth is the complete opposite, absent-minded and living in her own world. Beth is an author of dramatic novels and so engrossed in her craft of plot construction and character development that she does not much care for appearance, and domestic duties seem like such a burden. Beth and Robert have two children (20-year old Prudence and 5-year old Stevie), and she is sometimes anguished about not being a good mother. Her marriage to Robert has settled into a comfortable space driven by routines with not much room for passion and intimacy. But Robert feels trapped by the sameness of his job and married life, and looking for a spark he begins an affair with Tory.

Then there’s Lily Wilson, a young war widow, who is frequently overcome by utter desolation.

When she saw the light swinging over the water she felt terror and desolation, the approach of the long evening through which she must coax herself with cups of tea, a letter to her brother in Canada or this piece of knitting she had dropped to the floor as she leant to the pane to watch Bertram, the harsh lace curtain against her cheek, the cottony, dusty smell of it setting her teeth on edge.

Her life centers around running the waxworks exhibition during the tourist season and making trips to the library for books she can lose herself into, activities that further accentuate her sheer loneliness and her craving for human contact. Her desultory conversations with the charming Bertram give her a new lease of life and she starts frequenting the pub more often to have a chat with him and be escorted home.

And then there’s the ghastly Mrs Bracey, a bitter, gossipy, crude woman confined forever to bed because she is paralysed from the waist down. Mrs Bracey takes advantage of her hopeless physical condition to boss her daughters around, to the point that they are both resigned and filled with hate for her at the same time.  Iris works in the pub and has lofty dreams of a glamorous life although she is also aware of the futility of this ever happening. She refuses to regale Mrs Bracey with stories and scraps of gossip for which the latter is so hungry.

Maisie secretly wishes that her mother dies soon. Maisie’s expectations from life are prosaic compared to those of Iris, but her onerous duties of a caregiver bog her down and dash her hopes. Given that Mrs Bracey can no longer rely on her body which has given up on her, she lets her imagination run freely, even occasionally displaying a sharp, perceptive mind, however unwelcome.

Last but not the least is Robert and Beth’s daughter Prudence, a blossoming young woman stuck in a dead-end town. Robert worries about Prudence’s prospects, she does not have the talent to carve out an independent life for herself and the possibility of marriage also seems remote. But Tory knows that Prudence is perceptive; she has gauged correctly that her father is having an affair, a development that torments her greatly.

Virago 40th Anniversary edition

A View of the Harbour, then, is a bleak but beautiful novel that explores the themes of loneliness, solitude, betrayal, dashed hopes and of feeling constricted in a small, dismal town. Lily’s loneliness is devastating. Ravaged by fear because of an uncertain future, she yearns for company, someone to talk to and at one time even contemplates spending time with the coarse Mrs Bracey if only to dispel the emptiness gnawing inside her. Tory is more self-possessed than Lily but also very lonely. She ponders over the future of her relationship with Robert which appears to be doomed. Can she afford to deeply hurt her best friend, the one anchor that possibly keeps Tory rooted in that town?

And what about Bertram? Bertram so far, considers himself lucky for not having formed any romantic attachments. But he is also beginning to feel the weight of his years and the idea of marriage and settling down sounds comforting in a way that it never did before, maybe something of the isolation of this seaside community begins to get mirrored in him too.

Elizabeth Taylor displays wonderful sensitivity towards her characters who are such lost souls, they are flawed but she does not judge them. She is great at depicting the small dramas playing out in the lives of these ordinary people with her characteristic flair for astute insights into human nature. This is a community struggling to feel important, where an annual innocuous, humdrum festival becomes an event to talk about given the lack of entertainment otherwise, and where the inhabitants’ lives never go unobserved.

She is also superb at showcasing a vivid sense of place – the vastness of the sea conjuring up infinite possibilities is juxtaposed against a small harbour town devoid of excitement, burdened by limits which induce a notion of being stalled and going nowhere. The light over the sea keeps changing, in sharp contrast to community life which essentially remains unaltered.

The view of the harbour (giving the novel its name), including the lighthouse, is a permanent fixture in the book and is symbolic of different perspectives to each individual. To Mrs Bracey, the view from the window is an opportunity to observe what’s happening outside and satisfy her need to be in the thick of things.

Up at her window, and in some discomfort, Mrs Bracey sat in judgment. Guilt she saw, treachery and deceit and self-indulgence. She did not see, as God might be expected to, their sensations of shame and horror, their compulsion towards one another, for which they dearly paid, nor in what danger they so helplessly stood, now, in middle-age, not in any safe harbour, but thrust out to sea with none of the brave equipment of youth to buoy them up, no romance, no delight.

To Prudence, the view from the window possibly signals danger, she did inadvertently chance upon her father and Tory together and its implications make her wonder whether their family life is in peril.

Female friendship also forms one of the core themes of the novel explored through the relationship between Beth and Tory. Beth and Tory’s personalities could not have been more different but they complement each other. But this bond could be derailed by Tory’s affair with Robert of which Beth is unaware and is unwittingly the cause.

“You and I…” Tory said. “We are so different. But nothing with men is so good as our friendship. If women love one another there is peace and delight, fun without effort. None of that wondering if the better side of one’s face is turned to the light…”

Strangely, for what it’s worth, Beth seems the happiest of the town residents, her books and writing keep her occupied and maybe protected from the harsh realities of life around her. We even scent a whiff of feminism in her when she secretly laments at how men can plunge headlong into their careers, a kind of freedom denied to women because of domestic responsibilities.

In a nutshell, A View of the Harbour is Taylor once again at her finest. Her stunning, gorgeous prose and evocative use of language effectively conveys the quiet, desperate dramas of a community dulled by the smallness of its existence, the bleakness made bearable by great compassion and depth in the portrayal of her characters who must navigate their private lives on their own. Highly recommended!

The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson

I absolutely loved Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, a book that found a place on My Best Books of 2020 list. The Haunting of Hill House is also wonderful, and my lovely hardback edition with its striking cover and coloured black edges made for an excellent reading experience.

The Haunting of Hill House is a brilliant, spooky tale; a fascinating blend of the traditional ghost story with psychological horror.

No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House itself, not sane, stood against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, its walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.

Once again, Jackson enthralls the reader with this superb opening paragraph, and this coupled with the brilliant opening lines of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, prove that she is truly the queen of openings.

UNIQUE CHARACTERS AND BUILD-UP OF HORROR

Coming to the principal characters, we are first introduced to Dr John Montague, professor and researcher of psychic phenomena, who fuelled by intellectual curiosity, decides to rent Hill House for a period of time. Having ascertained that he needs a ‘haunted’ house to prove his theories, Dr Montague settles upon Hill House – its formidable reputation as a dwelling of malevolence and evil fits the bill perfectly. Having taken the permission of the current owners, the Sandersons, Dr Montague sets upon selecting and hiring a couple of assistants for his project.

Using this setup in the first few pages, Jackson provides brief snapshots of the main characters featuring in this novel. First, there’s Eleanor Vance, 32, a lonely young woman who is at the crossroads in her life post the death of her bitter, ailing mother. Burdened with the duty of caring for her, Eleanor’s life so far has been narrow and colourless. She has a married elder sister Carrie, but the two don’t get along at all, and Carrie is particularly patronizing taking pleasure in bossing over Eleanor. We then have Theodora, bright-eyed, belonging to “a world of delight and soft colours”, a sharp contrast to Eleanor’s anxious, reserved personality. The third and last member of Dr Montague’s team is Luke Sanderson, the future heir of Hill House. The Sandersons allow Dr Montague to rent Hill House on the condition that Luke becomes part of his team. Clearly, Luke is a troubled man and his family hopes that some time away will bring his thieving and gambling activities to a halt, if only for a temporary period.

These succinct biographies have hallmarks of Jackson’s typical style – strange, unique and a little fantastic, but because they are presented to us under the guise of Dr Montague’s scientific, methodical process of selection, the reader can’t help but accept it at face value.

But the novel’s pivotal character is none other than Hill House itself. Hill House is huge, ugly, menacing and sinister, a portent of evil, a sentient being. The house’s structure is distorted, it is not built on traditional architectural dimensions, and the effect it produces is capable of disorienting its inhabitants and throwing them off balance.

Once the party is ‘settled’ in the house, their task seems simple – record untoward events or disturbances and make notes, which Dr Montague will later analyse to determine whether there is really any psychic phenomena present, or it’s only an effect of subterranean waters. Jackson is brilliant at creating mood and atmosphere – the fear of the unknown, the mounting tension, the slow build-up of dread, and the uneasiness that creeps up on you. Heavy pounding on the doors, laughing noises, blasts of icy cold air at the entrance to the nursery, messages on the wall written in blood are some of the elements that throw the team off gear and also spook the reader. Dr Montague is compelled to give a warning…

Promise me absolutely that you will leave, as fast as you can, if you begin to feel the house catching at you.

But what makes Hill House haunted in the first place? Dr Montague regales his team with its history… as fascinating and eerie as their present circumstances – a tale that involves the eccentric designer of Hill House (Hugo Crain), a bitter and fractious relationship between two sisters (his daughters), death and suicide.

Hill House has a reputation for insistent hospitality; it seemingly dislikes lettings its guests get away. The last person who tried to leave Hill House in darkness—it was eighteen years ago, I grant you—was killed at the turn in the driveway, where his horse bolted and crushed him against the big tree.

But what of the characters themselves? We know that Eleanor’s life until now has been dreary and lonely. The expedition to Hill House offers the chance of adventure and an escape from her grim circumstances. Earlier on, we are privy to Eleanor’s vivid flights of imagination, especially on her long, arduous drive to Hill House – a state of mind that could possibly offer some clue to subsequent events that unravel in the house. Indeed, for Eleanor, a world of dreams is a far better alternative, a chance to lose herself in another world because the reality of her actual existence is stark and claustrophobic.

What about Theodora? It’s interesting that Theodora’s biography at the beginning does not really tell much about her, no concrete detail is provided other than the fact that she shares an apartment with a friend with whom she has had a quarrel. At one point I did wonder whether Theodora is a figment of Eleanor’s imagination, or her alter-ego, I could not really be sure.

THEMES

The Haunting of Hill House is laced with broken, destructive families, with particular emphasis on volatile relations between women, notably sisters. Just like in We Have Always Lived in the Castle, the idea of sisterhood is central to this novel. Eleanor has a strained relationship with her elder sister, the animosity between the two Crain sisters forms one of the slippery foundations of what makes Hill House such a malevolent, monstrous place. But the crux really is the shaky relationship between Eleanor and Theodora which veers wildly from easy camaraderie and friendship to sudden quarrels, further exacerbated by Eleanor’s jealousy and rage and Theodora’s cruelty and suspicious nature.

The second theme is fear – how fear makes an individual vulnerable and malleable, easily influenced by fantastic events which would otherwise have been dismissed by the rational, thinking mind.

“Fear,” the doctor said, “is the relinquishment of logic, the willing relinquishing of reasonable patterns. We yield to it or we fight it, but we cannot meet it halfway.”

Isolation, loneliness is the other core theme explored in this novel particularly through Eleanor’s persona. A friendless, isolated woman, Eleanor finds some modicum of acceptance and happiness at Hill House, even if the house is not receptive to its inhabitants. She opens up in a way she would not have thought possible. Somewhere she is also ridden with guilt, palpable in the way allusions to her mother keep popping up. She is a complex woman, afraid of being alone and yet her flights of fancy indicate that she prefers a life of seclusion and solitude.

THE STRANGENESS OF JACKSON’S REALM

Jackson does a marvellous job of subverting the readers’ expectations. Is this a straightforward horror story or is there a psychological angle to it?

It is so cold, Eleanor thought childishly; I will never be able to sleep again with all this noise coming from inside my head; how can these others hear the noise when it is coming from inside my head? I am disappearing inch by inch into this house, I am going apart a little bit at a time because all this noise is breaking me; why are the others frightened?

We are never quite sure of the dynamics between Dr Montague, Luke, Theo and Eleanor, their interactions sometimes appear as unbalanced as the house they occupy; the reader feels the same sense of disorientation as the characters. Many a time, Eleanor feels like she belongs, that she is an integral part of the team, but there are other times when she perceives herself an outsider, and thinks the others are talking behind her back. Guillermo del Toro states in his introduction aptly states that the haunting in Hill House feels real and everyone within it is alone, trapped in their own minds and blind to the plight of others.

Despite a narrative charged with tension and menace, moments of comedy shine through. For instance, the deadpan refrains delivered by the dour, inflexible Mrs Dudley sends the team into fits of laughter at one point, even drawing out a chuckle from this reader. The late entry of Mrs Montague (Dr Montague’s wife) considerably livens things up. Her domineering attitude coupled with her so-called empathy for the lost souls roaming Hill House make for some hilarious conversations with her husband.

Jackson truly excels at creating rich, striking imagery. There is one extraordinary scene where after a quarrel, Eleanor and Theo head out of the house for a walk in the dark against their better instincts. The scene around them is all black and white – a dark road winding through a pitch black sky with luminous white trees dotting the landscape. It’s a scene drained of all colour, both girls walk side-by-side, completely immersed in their own thoughts until they suddenly come upon a vibrant picnic scene bursting with a slew of colours. And then Theo spots something utterly frightening, screams, and the two girls run for dear life back to the house.

They perceived at the same moment the change in the path and each knew then the other’s knowledge of it; Theodora took Eleanor’s arm and, afraid to stop, they moved on slowly, close together, and ahead of them the path widened and blackened and curved. On either side of them the trees, silent, relinquished the dark color they had held, paled, grew transparent and stood white and ghastly against the black sky. The grass was colorless, the path wide and black; there was nothing else.

CONCLUSION

The Haunting of Hill House, then, is a wonderfully written, fluid, layered story of isolation, loneliness, horror and fear, ambiguous enough to throw up a lot of questions and unsettle the reader.

To learn what we fear is to learn who we are. Horror defies our boundaries and illuminates our souls.

Having now read both Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, I do think the latter is the better of the two, but that does not make the former any less brilliant.

Fatale – Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith)

Some years earlier, I was impressed by the two Manchette novels I had read – Three to Kill and The Mad and the Bad. No reviews on both of them here, because it was in the pre-blog days, but given that quite a few of his books have been published recently, I felt it was time to pick up another one.

Chaos reigns supreme in Fatale, another delicious, slim novel from Manchette’s oeuvre. When the book opens, Aimée Joubert, quintessential femme fatale, has left a trail of bodies in her wake, mostly of people belonging to the wealthy and privileged set.

Aimée has a single-minded focus – when on a mission in any particular area, she gathers information on members of the elite society there and leverages it to extract money.

“Well, it’s the same as ever, isn’t it? It seems slow, but actually it is quite fast. Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes. You have seen other towns, my sweet, and you’ll see others, knock on wood.”

Aimée is now on her way to a town called Bléville (literally translated as Doughville). Like any other town or city, Bléville has within its folds all strata of society, but Aimée is not interested in the working class obviously, heading towards the upscale residential neighbourhood instead.

Once ensconced in a spacious apartment she finds with the help of moolah-loving realtor, Aimée begins to steadily move around in these upper circles and blend in with them. A series of dinners, openings, bridge games follow and Aimée attends them all, always the cool observer.

At one such opening at a mansion, Aimée spots Baron Jules pissing publicly against the walls of the house. The baron is not at all liked in the town, his reputation is tarnished. A notoriety for voicing frank opinions and a stint in a psychiatric hospital have blemished his image.

We are also introduced to a variety of characters Monsieurs Lorque and Lenverguez, owners of a food factory, and “the pillars of Bléville’s prosperity. There’s Monsieur Moutet, a senior manager at the factory. His wife Christiane Moutet along with Sonia Lorque team up with Aimée for a series of bridge sessions. And then there is Lenverguez’s wife who is carrying on an extramarital affair with Baron Jules.

Aimée, meanwhile, goes about her business in town, attending parties and get-togethers, gathering information on the residents and honing her physical fighting skills. The plot suddenly thickens when a series of fatal food poisonings pushes the town residents to the edge.

When the spotlight glares on the powerful Lorque and Lenverguez, all hell breaks loose and Aimée plans to take advantage of the chaos that ensues.

Aimée is a fascinating character. She is a highly trained killer with gorgeous looks, but romantic entanglements do not interest her. Her past is murky – we learn that she was married, but subsequently killed her husband for abusing her.

“It was a genuine revelation, you see,” said Aimee to the baron. “They can be killed. The real assholes can be killed.”

Her motives seem to be purely driven by money and she has no qualms killing her wealthy victims who have largely risen to the top riding on the waves of corruption and exploitation.

Baron Jules could be labelled as left wing as far as his views go. He hates the town residents with intense fervour and claims to know all about their darkest secrets, although he hasn’t yet revealed any of it. As far as the town is concerned, he is a loose cannon.

“You poor old fool,” said the factory owner. “Nobody dares say it to your face, but I’ll say it: You are not welcome here, you are not invited. You think you can do whatever you like because everyone in Bléville is afraid of you. Well, I’m not afraid of you.” Lorque glanced at the man with the mustache. “Commissioner, throw this man out!”

“I don’t give a fuck!” cried Baron Jules as he was hustled towards the door. “I’ll be back to piss all over the place.”

The commissioner and the servants threw him down the front steps. He rolled into the gutter. “I don’t give a fuck,” he cried once more. “You’re all done for.”

These are some striking, bold set pieces that dot the novel – signature Manchette stuff. For instance, right at the beginning when travelling in a luxury train compartment, Aimée, all alone in her cabin, gorges on pickled cabbage and champagne, strips naked and rubs all the banknotes against her body. It’s the only time we glimpse her taking pleasure in something, in sharp contrast to the cold efficiency she displays otherwise. Then there is the incident of Baron Jules deliberately peeing in public as a mark of scorn, a man who greatly unsettles Aimée and which will later have consequences.

In terms of themes, Fatale explores the dark side of capitalism, and is an indictment of the evils of status and class differences. The novella surges ahead at a frenetic pace, and the noir is as black as it gets hurtling towards a conclusion that does not leave much room for hope. The madness and mayhem depicted within is characteristic of Manchette’s writing – I am particularly reminded of that striking supermarket set piece in The Mad and the Bad.

In a nutshell, Fatale, is another excellent novel from Manchette’s repertoire, well worth a read with a terrific NYRB Classics cover to boot.

The Greengage Summer – Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden was a discovery for me last year, her novel Black Narcissus found a place on my Best Books of 2021 list. Naturally, I wanted to read more and settled on The Greengage Summer.

The Greengage Summer is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale of love, deceit and new experiences, a beguiling mix of light and darkness set in the luxurious champagne region of France.

Our narrator is the charming Cecil Grey, aged thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood. Cecil has an elder sister, the beautiful Joss aged sixteen, while the younger siblings are Hester and the Littles (Will and Vicky).

Cecil’s father is a botanist, often away from home for long stretches of time. Relying on her brother (called Uncle William by the children) for financial and emotional support, Cecil’s mother and the children reside in lodgings in the dreary, seaside town of Southstone.

Southstone lacks character and Joss and Cecil absolutely loathe it. The pair also bemoans the family’s strained monetary circumstances.

I think now that the discontent was because we were never quite comfortable in Southstone and the rudeness came from the discontent; it was as-if a pattern-mould were being pressed down on us into which we could not fit.

Fed up with their continuous grumbling, the mother whisks them off to France to see the battlefields hoping that some kind of an exposure and knowledge about other people’s sacrifices will open their eyes to how self-absorbed they are.

Excited by the idea of a short stint in Paris on the way for shopping and visiting museums, Joss, Cecil and the gang are in a state of great anticipation but the trip is doomed right from the start. The mother gets bitten by a horse-fly, her feet swell and she begins to develop a fever. Beset by fear, anxiety and a sense of being lost in a strange, unfamiliar country, the family somehow makes it to Vieux-Moutiers region to finally land at the enchanting Les Oeillets hotel.

However, things do not get easier when they reach the hotel – the mother’s condition deteriorates, language being a barrier the children struggle to communicate, and the hotel manager, Madame Courbet, is not particularly welcoming. Madame Courbet refuses to have a sick patient under her roof, and is not keen on the idea of assuming responsibility for the children. Angered by the terrible treatment meted out to them, Joss is all set to storm out of the hotel with the rest of the gang in tow, when Mademoiselle Zizi and Eliot make an entry.

An Englishman, Eliot quickly gauges the predicament of the family, the mother is settled in a room, and subsequently transferred to the hospital. Meanwhile, he offers to be a guardian to the children.

In the initial days, Joss is also struck by illness and is confined to her room. Thus, Cecil, Hester, Will and Vicky are pretty much left to their own devices and given free rein. Cecil is overcome by the newness and strangeness of not just the hotel, but also its people and their unique mannerisms.   

The staircase was paneled in pale green, riddled with curious holes, but the holes did not take away from its elegance. The hall was elegant too. It was odd that we, who had never seen elegance before – though it was our favourite word – immediately recognized it.

Reveling in their newfound freedom, the kids begin to explore the hotel, the gardens and the orchards around it gorging on greengages that give the novel its name.

Stepping in dew, my head in the sun, I walked into the orchard and, before I knew what I had done, reached up to touch a greengage. It came off, warm and smooth, into my hand I looked quickly round, but no one came, no voice scolded and, after a moment, I bit into the ripe golden flesh. Then I ate another, and another, until replete with fruit and ecstasy, I went back to my post.

Vicky latches on to Monsieur Armand, the hotel cook. Wills finds a spot under the cherry tree to be alone and pore over French fashion books. Cecil and Hester befriend Paul, the cook’s helper, who regales them with hotel gossip. It gradually emerges that Eliot and Zizi are lovers; Zizi especially is besotted with him. Madame Courbet, devoted to Zizi, despises Eliot but is powerless.

Eliot, meanwhile, develops a soft spot for the Grey family much to Zizi’s chagrin. When Joss, having recovered from her illness, finally emerges out of confinement, things begin to hot up. Eliot is mesmerized by her beauty and can’t take his eyes off her, Zizi is insanely jealous, and Cecil becomes a reluctant spectator watching Joss become embroiled in a messy drama…What’s more, thrown into this mix is the renowned French painter, Monsieur Joubert…

Eliot is an interesting, mysterious character, by turns warm and inscrutable whose motives remain hazy to the children. He is generally fond of them, but Cecil also glimpses the occasional changes in mood, the coldness and curt responses which are a sign to her to keep her distance. There is a part of him that remains inaccessible and bewilders Cecil, but his suave, charming personality endears him to the gang and they find themselves loyal to him despite his faults.

He had a carnation in his buttonhole, a dark-red one, and it seemed to symbolize Eliot for us. Why are flowers bought by men so much more notable than those bought by women? I do not know, but they are. Father brought flowers into the house but they were dried, pressed brown, the life gone out of them; with Eliot the flower was alive.

Blessed with striking good looks, Joss has awakened to her sexuality and is aware of the effect it has on men including Eliot. But it is Cecil who, in many ways, is the show stealer with her flair for storytelling and for being in the thick of things. She has reached that point in her life where she wants to be treated like an adult, but still remains innocent in many aspects. The torment that she suffers because of this conflict has been astutely conveyed by Godden. Compared to Joss, Cecil considers herself plain with unremarkable features, a fact that she resents. But she is a wonderful narrator, displaying the naiveté of her age, while occasional moments of astuteness shine through.

The Greengage Summer, then, is a heady cocktail of themes – the loneliness of entering into adulthood, loss of innocence, the intensity of love, and lies and deceit that pepper the world of adults. Under the veneer of languid summers and the joys of new experiences, run currents of darkness with hints of violence, death, sinister happenings. Cecil, accustomed to the straightforward world of children, is often confused by the behaviour of the adults around her, the ease with they lie and extricate themselves from a challenging situation. And she and Joss are faced with the possibility that Eliot may not be what he seems, he has his own secrets to hide.

We were told not to come back until four o’clock and the boundary we were set was the box hedge. On one side lay the house and its happenings, a shifting and changing pattern of Eliot, Mademoiselle Zizi, Madame Corbet, Paul, Monsieur Armand, Mauricette, the carloads and chars-a-bancs of visitors; when we were away from it, it was as unreal as the cocktails they all drank…

On the wilderness and orchard side was an older, more truthful world; every day as we passed into it, I caught its older, simpler scents.

The novel sizzles with the sensuousness of French summer – the light filtering in through the canopy of lush green trees, the shimmering surroundings burnished into gold by the rays of the sun, the languor of the heat, the liquid, dreamy atmosphere inducing feelings of exhilaration and being alive. The exotic food, delectable pastries, sparkling champagne and various others sights, sounds and smells dazzle Cecil and Joss, it is such a stark contrast to the dullness of their English existence. Breathing in the air of elegance and sophistication, they are intoxicated by the ease and glamour of the French way of living. Godden’s storytelling is wonderfully absorbing and she is great at describing things.

At that time of day the sun sinking behind the trees struck through the landing window and turned the staircase into a funnel of light; even the treads of the stairs seemed barred with gold, and through the round window came the sound of trills and flutings, the birds singing their evening song in the garden, before it dropped to silence. The staircase might have been Jacob’s ladder, stairs to heaven.

And here she is describing the ambience in a restaurant…

…As the patron cooked our steaks in front of us and dusk came down, shutting the little glass-sided restaurant into a world of its own, the disappointment went. Eliot gave us vin rosé, and the rose-coloured wine, the réchaud flame, the lights were reflected in the windows over and over again, shutting us into a warm lit world.

The prose is simple and unadorned and perfectly captures the voice of its naïve yet perceptive teenaged narrator.

What is also astonishing about The Greengage Summer is that much of it is autobiographical, based on true events. My edition of this novel has a preface by Rumer Godden and an introduction by Jane Asher. In her preface, Godden reveals to us the actual events that took place during their French holiday in 1923, the richness of material giving birth to this novel (Cecil is Rumer), while Jane Asher gives a flavor of her experiences of filming the book and of being cast in the role of Cecil. Both make for fascinating reading, but I would suggest reading them after the novel.

In a nutshell, The Greengage Summer is a glorious read with its evocative portrayal of summer, a meaty storyline and a cast of memorable characters. Highly recommended!

2021: A Year of Reading in Pictures

In mid-December, I released My Best Books of 2021. These are the books that I really loved and would heartily recommend.

Also, exactly like in 2019 and 2020, I am doing a photo-feature post this year too that depicts all the books I read during the year in pictures, because I also enjoy photographing books.

So without much ado, here are all the books…I have done monthly posts highlighting my reading this year too, should you want to know more about these books.