When even a fictional character is a little too much for constant company
The Small Hours starts with the central character, Harriet Mansfield, a woman in her late 30’s, nearing the end of her final therapy session after 10 years of intensive 3 times a week. It’s pretty obvious, from the start, that Harriet is perhaps more than a little fragile, and that if life is unkind, her ability to stay well may be unstable.
Harriet’s background, we gather, has been deeply dysfunctional, with a sense that for some reason she has been scapegoated by a cold or indifferent parent, and an older brother who regards her with distaste.
Harriet is loud, large and unruly, a clumsy 6 foot redhead, too much in every way, it seems, for most people. Except children, who adore her.
Left a substantial amount of money by her banker father (probably as some sort of unstated, unacknowledged recompense for her awful childhood) her desire and decision is to set up a paradise for pre-school, nursery age little girls, with the aim of providing all the warmth, creativity, appreciation, love and happiness which were so lacking from her own history.
I must admit I struggled with this short book for some time. Harriet and her incessant attempts to keep up happy and uplifting chatter to herself, in her own head, was just a little too much. With some guilt, I couldn’t warm to this noisy, good-hearted but irritating soul, despite her undoubted ‘on the side of the angels’ qualities. I found her, from the off, too brittle, too flaky, just too much, and rather wanted to get away from her company, feeling incredibly uncharitable for doing so – her relentlessly witty inside her head conversations felt rather exhausting:
In situations of tension her ‘inner voice’ wisecracks, relentlessly, louder and louder. Yes, there are people who simply cannot face their own (or anyone else’s) pain, and WILL endlessly wisecrack – and i suspect their inner voice is rather like Harriet’s – but they crackle with a sort of static ‘tries too hard’
A candid ring on the front door bell and Harriet sprang out of her red chair and raced down the three flights to the front hall and there at the threshold stood Clementine’s father, so tightly furled in dark business attire he appeared to be impersonating an umbrella. You had to feel sorry for him………………..Is it a fight he’s looking for? Harriet rose grandly. Good. Bring It On by Miss Harriet Irene Mansfield.
Initially I could not quite get on with Harriet’s inner voice, and Boyt herself narrating with Harriet’s voice – this wasn’t first person narration as style, and yet of course it was – the ‘candid’ ring; the tightly furled umbrella comment, is surely Harriet – and yet we have Harriet who springs out of the red chair, so is this Harriet endlessly describing herself in the third person?
And then, suddenly, the book ‘clicked’
In her desperate desire for parental approval Harriet comes to a sudden meltdown; the overly frenetic, hypermanic persona cracks, and Harriet’s early history is revealed, and with anguish, buried memories begin to surface. A more fragile, hurt, but less driven hysterical Harriet emerges, even as we know she is falling yet further.
I suddenly realised that the ‘I really don’t want to spend time with Harriet’ may well have been part of Boyt’s craft, as the manic Harriet so desperately wanted affection and approval that she drove people away with her ferocious (and understandable) need
Boyt has a sure grasp of some dark and painful psychology going on here, and I became much more drawn into ‘rooting for Harriet’
I was not altogether sure about the final unravelling of Harriet’s family story, the reason the brother kept her at bay and scapegoated her, rather than the parents, didn’t quite make sense, and the final event at her school blew up a little unbelievably, in terms of public reaction to her, as the true events were quickly known. The ‘wrap’ seemed a little too neat and contrived. It made sense, but the precipitating event didn’t.
Nonetheless, Boyt writes some deep, believable truths about patterns of dysfunction handed down the generations, and does this with wit, vitality and verve. Whistle while you wince.
In some ways, this reminded me of an much earlier book, Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe At Home It was (the combination of wounds still very prevalent in middle age, caused by a punishing childhood, but delivered with style and humour, rather than misery, and the world seen through that person’s vision. Benatar I think the tighter, tauter writer whose ratcheting up of coming apart is drip-fed a little more imperceptibly