Originally published in 1978, this Booker short-listed novel chronicles fraught interactions between and within the Marsh and Frayling families during the summer of 1936.
Because her mother has just had another baby, eight-year-old Margaret Marsh is allowed a special treat on Wednesdays: a trip to the seaside and surrounding woods with Lydia, the family’s maid. There isn’t much fun in the Marsh household, because they belong to a strict fundamentalist sect, the Primal Saints. Elinor Marsh converted when she married Kenneth on the rebound from a romance with Charles Frayling, whose snobbish mother forbade her Cambridge-educated son to marry a dustman’s daughter. Mrs. Frayling is dying now; Charles and his sister Binkie, estranged from her since the fight over Elinor, live in a house of their own not too far from the family manor. Gardam (The Man in the Wooden Hat, 2009, etc.) slips in and out of their various consciousnesses to delineate a tangled set of relationships. For all his religious fervor, Kenneth lusts after Lydia, tough-as-nails product of an abused childhood. Elinor, now much more self-confident than the shy working-class girl who adored Charles, flees from her husband to the Frayling siblings, but Charles has long since realized he’s not really interested in sex of any kind. Observing all this mystifying adult activity is intelligent, angry Margaret, whose reckless walk along the rocks as the tide sweeps in provides the novel’s climax. As usual, Gardam requires very few pages to delineate an entire world of class-ridden prejudice and the blighting effect it has on every character. Yet each one is so achingly vulnerable, and depicted with such empathy, that it’s a relief to be reminded in a final chapter set 12 years later that people are surprisingly resilient and can make the best of even the most unpromising circumstances.
Another finely detailed, shrewdly observed and unsentimentally moving portrait of English life from two-time Whitbread Award winner Gardam.