I'll own up that I was scouring the shelves for some succinct fiction back in early December... alright, short novels.
I seemed to have shelves full of very enticing looking chunksters that I hoped to get to eventually, Dominion by C.J.Sansom being one, but I was after something that would deliver in fewer pages, so I plumped for The Small Hours by Susie Boyt, at just over 200 pages I'd cope.
Harriet Mansfield has come into an inheritance from her father and decides to open a nursery school, what can possibly go wrong.
By page seventeen you know it does, just not how.
Slowly and often by stealth, focalising events through Harriet's thoughts and self-encouragement, a back story starts to emerge.
'If you think I'm hard work you really ought to meet my ma, Harriet laughed to herself. She would reduce you all to mincemeat in a flash. The lively disapproval that poured out of her mother coloured everything; it lowered and hardened, reducing, limiting, rejecting. It was a substantially toxic pollutant, freezing all the good things out of you until you were forced to put forward the very version of yourself she loathed.'
And it was Harriet's silent laugh to herself that spoke volumes. That clear and uniequivocal disharmony between body language and inner truth that an abused person is so capable of delivering , a mask beneath which lay Harriet's history; one of ghastly, skull-cracking physical abuse at the hands of her mother who still features very large in Harriet's life. Unchallenged by her disturbed and frequently distraught and suffering daughter I wished every kind of evil to be heaped upon Mother of Harriet, especially when she was admitted to hospital.
Double incontinece... no let's have some mistaken surgery, take off the good leg ... or perhaps the wrong dose of insulin, someone get the 0 in the wrong place, anything to get this awful, self-centred woman who I DID NOT EVEN WANT TO TRY TO UNDERSTAND off the planet.
It is to Susie Boyt's credit that she doesn't take the easy route here, which is probably why Susie is a succesful author and I am not.
What also becomes clear in the light of all this is perhaps why Harriet has set up an idyllic nursery school in the first place. What better way to try and overcome personal traumas than by trying to patch over a desecrated childhood of her own with the creation of a blissfully happy childhood environment for others, and one that she can perfectly control.
It is of course an idealistic, contrived happiness which no amount of money can buy, and which can take no account of the foibles and temperaments of those who will use it. As things start to unravel Harriet must fall back on her seriously depleted resilience, precariously bolstered by years of therapy which has only recently drawn to a close. The language of therapy still uppermost in her inner vocabulary...
'It was important to know that all human people - with mixed results, it was true - were almost always doing the best they could. I know I am, she murmured.'
Susie Boyt's own thoughts about researching the nursery school environment make for interesting reading now that I have finished the book,
At this time I was also looking for a nursery school for my daughter (she is now 11) and it struck me that some of the nursery teachers I met were rather odd, very good with children but hopeless with adults. The more intense nursery heads I met seemed to have such a strong vision and agenda that I did sometimes wonder if there was something very strongly they were reacting against in their own lives. I remember one woman saying to me, ‘I only want your daughter here if you love me and you love my school.’ I thought that in the highly strung, super-sensitive and often fraught atmosphere of the nursery school, the teachers’ need of approval, and the parents’ need and the child’s need had the potential to be explosive.
Harriet's inner voice works insatiably hard to help convince herself that she is fine, it is rare for the 'mindless games of blame and grief ' to take a day off, and when they do Harriet can indulge herself a little yet all the while knowing she is a sort of concoction of mixed emotions....
'I'm a sort of caricature, ' she confided to the damp and powdery linen.... I'm big, garish, I'm overt. When I'm in a car with people they wind their windows down to let a bit of me out!'
This is most certainly a book to make a reader take sides, a reckoning is so desperately called for and whether one is acheived in any shape or form is open to reader interpretation. I had my own thoughts, every reader will have theirs, and Susie Boyt's don't give too much away either ...
I realized that in my four previous novels I had always left my main characters in a better place than where I found them and in The Small Hours I set myself the challenge of not doing this. It was very hard. I felt tremendous loyalty towards Harriet from the beginning and really wanted her to succeed, and to be heard, and valued.
I was fascinated from the beginning by the character of Harriet and see her in a tradition of difficult, damaged but rather brilliant women.
Mission accomplished, this is a really good read. Different, full of engaging eccentricities born of the lifelong damage that can be inflicted by childhood abuse, but not in a way that feels mawkish, or voyeuristic. This is no fictional 'misery memoir' buried in a novel, there is self-effacing humour here too and I felt I constantly detected an urgent need within Harriet to look on the bright side of life.
In fact enough to make me want to sing a quick round of..
Some things in life are bad, they can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse
When you're chewing on life's gristle, don't grumble give a whistle
This will help things turn out for the best
When you learn that Susie Boyt is the great grand-daughter of Sigmund Freud and the daughter of artist Lucien Freud a great deal more slips into place here, and when you recall that her last book was My Judy Garland Life these words of Susie's bring a smile too...
Finally, as a character, Harriet had the rather difficult task of following Judy Garland, something no-one in show business would ever have considered attempting. I hope she does it well. God knows what they would have made of each other…