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Sharp reversals of situation through character are the building-blocks of all of Hanley's novels--and these reversals usually mount up powerfully because they're in a two- or three-person matrix. Here, though, the cast is larger--and brings trouble. A small boy named Robert Dolphin, abandoned by his well-bred mother to live with his lorry-driver father in two dingy rooms in the Paddington section of London, is suddenly made a virtual orphan when the elder Dolphin dies (in the bed he shares with the boy). So the mother's family steps in, dispatching a man-servant down from the family estate to go and fetch the boy back. And Robert now goes to live with the aging Mortimer clan at ""Greys,"" the family manse: there's his grandfather Gabriel, with second wife Celia; and there are Gabriel's brothers (retired colonial Geoffrey, reclusive outcast Arthur) and sisters (widow Agatha, spinster Isobel). Robert, with his childhood, enters the Mortimers' life like a brick through glass. Moreover, kind servant Thomas (who brings the boy to Greys) turns out to be fairly cruel--which is partially explained by the fact that he hasn't been paid, it turns out, in over three years by the penurious but false-fronted Gabriel. Throughout, in fact, the weak people turn out to be strong here, and vice versa. So, when a claim on Robert is made by the boy's paternal grandmother, he unexpectedly chooses to stay with the Mortimers--specifically great-aunt Agatha, whose love for the boy has been the only one to emerge honestly. With his pointillism, his shifting identities and unmaskings, Hanley moves all this along artfully. But what is truly germane here--the boy, the Mortimers' life together (somewhat à la Ivy Compton Burnett)--is constantly befogged, with a playful approach that leaves the emotions unexplored. So: a skillfully interesting novel, but one that's feckless and uncentered--and not one of Hanley's best.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1981
Publisher: Horizon