While nearly all child narrators are somehow precocious (otherwise they wouldn't know all of the big words that their adult puppetmasters force upon their lips), they do provide a tempting canvas on which to paint a distorted picture of the adult world. Children are credited with understanding the world in a unique and prescient way; because they don't always understand what is going on around them, they can give us fresh interpretations. But again, I usually come back to the cynical position that we are not actually seeing things through the child's lens of confusion and wonder, but rather from the artificial construct of that lens by the author. I don't know, maybe that doesn't bother other people. Maybe I need to get over it.
Anyway, rant against pseudo-childlike insight aside, I just didn't think that this was Gardam's best work. Margaret Marsh, the young girl protagonist, reminded me a little bit of surly Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden, but without the eventual sunny breakthrough. Her mother has just had a baby, and Margaret is disgusted both by the infant and her mother's obvious infatuation with him. Because of the baby, though, Mrs. Marsh decides that Margaret deserves a special treat each week, as a solace for the reduction in motherly attention. The treat takes the form of trips to the seaside with the Marsh's servant-girl, Lydia. While the Marshes are strict and upright Christians, particularly fanatical Mr. Marsh, Lydia plays up her sensuality with tight satin dresses and speaks coarse Cockney English. Margaret begins a period of growth and change on these day-trips, first in the exposure to some kind of sexual relationship between Lydia and a gardener on an old estate, and then through her experience at the estate itself. Unsupervised while Lydia conducts her love affair, Margaret wanders onto the private property and its strange denizens. At this point in the story, perspectives begin to open up and we learn that the estate begins to Rosalie Frayling, now a mummified old woman, who has opened up the house and grounds to mental patients. Unbeknownst to either Margaret or Rosalie, Mrs. Marsh was once engaged to be married to Rosalie's son, but the affair was quashed by Rosalie's outrage at the idea of her son abasing himself to marry the daughter of the postman. Meanwhile, Mrs. Marsh decides to reconnect with this son, who has moved back into the village. How these pieces all come together in a fairly natural way demonstrates Gardam's sure hand with plot.
Gardam is also a beautiful writer, and she does justice to the setting as well as the complex emotional lives of her characters. In the end though, I wasn't fully moved by the characters. Blame my irrational hatred of child protagonists, if you want. But I'd pick up Old Filth or Man in the Wooden Hat first.
Cross posted on my blog.