'Were you anywhere near Lytton when you were in Canada?' I asked the Kayaker when he came to call recently.
I had just finished Hetty Dorval by Canadian author Ethel Wilson and had been struck by Ethel Wilson's vivid depictions of the town of Lytton, situated at the confluence of the Thompson and Fraser rivers in British Columbia.
'Every town that stands at the confluence of two rivers has something over and above other towns...just beside the town the clear turbulent Thompson River joins the vaster opaque Fraser...'
'Ever since I could remember, it was my joy and the joy of all of us to stand on the this strong iron bridge and look down at the line where the expanse of emerald and sapphire dancing water joins and is quite lost in the sullen Fraser...'
Thus says Ethel Wilson's first person narrator Frankie as the book opens, and it transpired that the Kayaker knew Lytton, that view, and the rivers well having worked nearby for a season as white water river guide some years ago.
Twelve-year old Frances 'Frankie' Burnaby rides fifteen miles to school in Lytton each week from her remote farmland home...and there's a thing...a twelve year old riding that distance alone, I was immediately impressed with this book. One day Frankie meets a new neighbour, the beautiful and enigmatic Hester Dorval, an incomer living in an isolated house with just a housekeeper for company and a friendship of sorts is established, though not without some sense of guilt and reservation on Frankie's part given the rumours and gossip that swirl around and the little that is known of Hetty's life. Scandal never quite breaks the surface but everyone is sure it must exist, and when Hetty's parents discover the friendship they are not best pleased.
Dispatched to boarding school and adolescence in England, Frankie will have several chance encounters with Hetty in the years to come and the opportunity to formulate her own adult opinions about the woman for whom 'nobody existed as an individual.'
'Hetty Dorval was a human cat in some ways, and yet cats have sometimes malice and they sharpen their claws.'
Ethel Wilson creates a masterclass in the origins of deep-seated and perhaps unfounded prejudice towards others often based on unsubstantiated rumour ...and I will say no more because there are several twists and turns and revelations in this slim but far from slight read, including Hetty's uncertain fate which has lingered in my mind long after I had finished the book.
I was sufficiently intrigued about Ethel Wilson to go in search of a biography and finding an excellent one by David Stouck (for 1p at You Know Where) I have been dipping into the details of Ethel's life. Orphaned at a young age she had a peripatetic childhood and there are certainly hints of her own life journeys in Hetty Dorval, and to the extent that I wondered how difficult one incident in particular may have been to write given Ethel's own experiences of loss. There are interesting revelations about Ethel's fear of publicity too. 'HELP HELP HELP' she writes to her publisher as the book is about to appear and she is lined up to give interviews. Ethel Wilson seems to have fallen into the life of a writer almost by chance before rising to something of a star in the Canadian literary firmament.
Interesting to that David Stouck and other critics cite Hetty as a psychopath, something which passed me by completely...
'As social predators who charm and manipulate, psychopaths make their way through life leaving a trail of broken hearts, shattered expectations and empty wallets. They make a very good impression at first and generate a state of excitement in their victim's lives.'
This certainly added some extra flavours to the book for me, but deeply embedded too is the powerful sense of place, and the atmosphere of British Columbia, created by Ethel Wilson. Swirling around in my mind those two rivers merging, one clear, one cloudy, surely the perfect analogy for Frankie's innocence and Hetty's seemingly suspect life experience.
So a diversion to Canada in amongst other reading but I have been impressed by Ethel Wilson's writing and quickly located a copy of another novel by her, Swamp Angel, read as soon as it arrived from the U.S. and my thoughts on that dreckly.
Meanwhile if you have read Hetty Dorval please do share your thoughts...
And even if you haven't read the book but 'know' British Columbia I would be fascinated to hear your impressions about that sense of place...