This is dual story and timeline novel which is beautifully written and compelling. The author has imagined, with the help of some research, Wystan H Auden’s life when he was twenty-four teaching at a boy’s school in Larchfield in the 1930’s. He struggles to fit into the small-town community in the west coast of Scotland, a place where he is ridiculed and alone, far from the bustling intellectualism of London. The other story is about Dora a young academic and poet, newly married and pregnant who settles with her architect husband in nearby Helensborough. Her excitement about the move soon peters out as she comes to grips with the isolation and a small baby. Walking on the beach, she finds a bottle with a telephone message from W.H. Auden which gives her a connection. Her ideas of a creative and fulfilling life come crashing down with disastrous consequences.
I loved the atmosphere the author conveyed of being alone and an outsider. The slow reveal about Wystan’s homosexuality, and the building tension of impending war was also fascinating when he visited Berlin. The culture of the school was interesting particularly the old lady and Jessop characters. The display of prejudice was also well done.
Dora was an interesting character but I struggled to buy into the fact that her story was set in present day. Her name was very old fashioned, and her connection to technology seemed non-existent. She could have sat just as well in the early 1930’s. Indeed, the narrative where she and Wystan share the same chapters had me puzzled at first until I realised what was happening. I fully understood the demands of her baby but the nastiness of her neighbour, Mo and the ensuring hostility seemed a bit over the top. The attitude of the health nurse seemed old fashioned until we remember that we, the reader are inside Dora’s head and that her perspective is not to be fully relied upon. Although it took me a while, the realisation was quite a revelation.
I knew virtually nothing about W.H. Auden until I discovered that it was his poem which was read out in the funeral scene of the film, Four Weddings and a Funeral. Remember it?
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
I warmed to both characters and the growing foreboding tension kept me reading right up to the end. It’s the sort of book that you have to think about, long after you’ve finished it. Most of the character names used in the novel were dated and I was told by a friend that they’re a nod to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Now I’ll have to read that one and delve into the poetry of W.H. Auden. No doubt I’ll discover another intriguing layer of Larchfield.
At first read, not all is what it seems, so give it a go.