…Seems to be all I’ve managed to do for my blog friends this week! A number of posts have risen to consciousness – I was going to take a picture of the monstrous piles of books I’ve acquired so far this year (it was my birthday on Wednesday) but I couldn’t get the camera to work. Then the cats brought in a mouse, an event of such skin-crawling horror that it evolved almost instantaneously into a draft post in my head, but one that never made it to the keyboard. And I don’t want to mention how many reviews I am behind. But it has been work, work, and more work all week, apart from my birthday, which I gave to myself as a day for doing absolutely and completely nothing. I have a genius for sloth.
So it’s Friday, and I’m wondering how best to get back into the swing. I noticed that the Orange prize longlist has been featured on lots of blogs this week, and surprisingly (because I so rarely read books when they’re first out) I’ve read one on the list, and by one of the less well-known authors, too. I’d requested a review copy of The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison as the premise of the novel intrigued me. I knew it had been inspired by a National Trust house I’d fallen in love with as a child, and which I’d visited again only last summer. The novel begins in August 1939 as England stands on the brink of war and tells the story of 8-year-old Anna Sands, soon to be evacuated to the countryside. Hoping for a glimpse of the sea, she is instead sent to deepest Yorkshire and a large, stately home, owned by Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton. The Ashtons have glamour; Elizabeth is elegant, Thomas is wheelchair-bound and charming, but their marriage is a wreck, and Anna is about to be drawn into its turbulence. It’s hard to discuss this book without referring to The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, for in both cases children become witnesses to adult liaisons well beyond their emotional grasp, and in both cases again, the exchange of letters will play a significant role. But Rosie Alison’s novel is well aware of its intertextuality; what eventually happens to the triangle of Anna, Thomas and Elizabeth may not be what the reader expects.
The story unfolding in the big house is surrounded by a number of other perspectives on the war. Anna’s parents, Roberta and Lewis, live their separate lives, Lewis in the deserts of North Africa, Roberta at the BBC, guiltily enjoying a second chance at an independent life. Also drawn into the story are Sir Clifford Norton, a diplomat, and his energetic wife, Peter. This enterprising couple find themselves in all kinds of hot spots, helping Polish refugees, bringing aid to the Holocaust survivors and providing a neat counterpoint to Ashton Hall where only personal trauma dominates. In many ways this is a story about people feeling helpless in the face of history – be it public or private – and how they respond to it, whether they branch out recklessly, quietly seek their own niche or selflessly bring aid to others. It’s also a book about passion, and how it will not be denied, no matter how incongruous or oppressive the circumstances. And it’s also a book that takes a long hard look at what happens to children when adults put their own concerns first. The first two-thirds of the narrative cover the war years, but a final, extra section is devoted to the rest of Anna’s life and the unfolding of the damage done to her. For me, that last section prevented the book from becoming a simple romance, and it became instead a book about how we use romance to bolster ourselves against life, in ways that are destined to fail.
This is an elegiac novel, moving, tender and quiet, despite the occasionally dramatic events it recounts. It is beautifully written and very evocative. But one thing I have to mention; it contains surprisingly little dialogue. This gives it an odd feel at moments, distancing the reader, keeping the plot unspooling at quite a rapid rate. I didn’t mind it, but at the same time, I noticed it. I don’t think this one will win the Orange prize; it lacks the wow factor, but it was a very good read and a book that readers can easily take a risk on. Even if you don’t love it, it’s unlikely that you would hate it, as it’s intelligent and gentle and sad, as well as a little capsule of history on the plight of the wartime evacuees.