Gripping and oppressive first novel, almost succeeding.
So I thought I’d go back to her beginning and read her first novel. She had not figured on my radar when this was published. I think I may have seen the cover and assumed (wrongly) that this was just a slushy period romance
I suspect had I read this at the time I might have rated it a little more highly, turning it from only just reaching four star to perhaps still being four star but almost getting to five.
Jones is an accomplished writer, and what impresses more is that each book has been different, – something which she has developed, strongly in The Uninvited Guests, but also present in Fallout, is a barbed humour, an ability to capture the style of different periods, and to master different types of story and setting
In this first novel, set in a highly oppressive, commuter belt Home Counties upper-middle class setting in the 1950’s, where class-lines are rigid and there is a heavy-drinking culture. Misogyny and casual brutality towards women are hidden behind closed doors. Emotional expression is constrained, repressed and subverted behind a mask of High Tory conformity, and there is a culture of tedious and lengthy church-going which has little to do with personal faith and everything to do with another medium of social control and the laying down of hours of stultifying conformity and boredom.
Jones follows the fortune of Lewis Aldridge, a highly strung little boy, with a playful effervescent, slightly dangerous mother. Like many families at that time at the end of the way, children had been born and had their early years in a world mostly often without fathers, who were away in the army. The return of the father could be difficult, as father and children were strangers to each other. Lewis loses his mother when he is still fairly young, and Elizabeth’s death, combined with the stiff-upper lip culture espoused by his father, Gilbert, has a devastating effect on the small boy. Both Elizabeth herself and the manner of her death put Lewis outside the norms.
Jones is brilliant at evoking this kind of society where violence and raw pain shimmer below the tightly controlled surfaces of ‘good behaviour’ Her ability to write truthful psychology and character are also excellent.
However, I was not completely convinced by the character of Tamsin, the eldest daughter of the most powerful family in the community, the Carmichaels. The behaviour and relationship between Tamsin and Lewis felt a little contrived (on Tamsin’s side, rather than Lewis’s) and I thought plot was driven at expense of character. Likewise, the denouement ending where revelation is forced, so that the messy skeletons in Carmichael cupboards can be seen by all, and there is a possibility of redemption for Lewis, just did not feel quite as well judged and believable as the earlier parts of the novel.