Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Battered Penguin - Time After Time by Molly Keane

Yes, all right, it isn't a Penguin but it is a paperback and, better still, it is awfully good. The story concerns four ageing brothers and sisters who live in a large, decaying house in Ireland in the mid to late 20th century. As we are informed early on:

"Money was the hopeless problem".

Each of the four is imagined with great accuracy and Molly Keane takes pains to portray the fading splendour in which they live - with emphasis on the fading: "the old breath of human dinners and dogs' dinners, chickens' and pigs' dinners too, combined with cats' earths and dogs' favourite urinals, all clung to the air like grey hairs in a comb" - and the ways in which each manages to find interest in their quiet forgotten lives. While one makes "tweed pictures", (something I've never heard of before but which sounds quite awful), another is devoted to preserving the shreds of her beauty, a third to producing food from the estate and being involved with horses, while Jasper, the oldest, takes pleasure in cooking in the quite revoltingly dirty kitchen and in being in the place where he grew up:

"On his way back to the kitchen Jasper stopped for a minute on the turn of the staircase where, from the high, floor-length window, he saw a swan rise through the ribbons of mist lying along the river. There is ecstasy in a swan's flying: in the neck leaning lasciviously on the air, the body stretched behind the shouting wings. He watched while his swan took her short flight and dropped back through the mists to the water, her landing lost to his sight. It was as much as Jasper asked of ny emotional moment: to be and to cease. He was never one for squandering emotion. He had saved and pinched and scraped on it in so many directions that, finally, there was very little left to squander."

What a beautiful description and how brilliant that Keane manages to widen our understanding of Jasper through painting this scene.

There are one or two secondary characters, notably the frightful Lady Alys who exercises that particular kind of polite cruelty that the British upper classes seem to love so much:

"She had soft, well-taught manners, through which she was as quick to destroy as to please."

When May, one of the sisters, has the opportunity to take revenge on Lady Alys by smashing a piece of Meissen, she doesn't for "small beautiful objects were, to May, far more important than the breakage of her own self-respect and confidence." A fascinating insight into her personality and an interesting approach to life.

Having set the scene and conjured up the characters brilliantly, a dangerous visitor from the past is introduced into the story, but not before the reader has grown fond of the characters already there, `9in the way one might be fond of family members; that is, while recognising their myriad faults).

SEMI SPOILER ALEART

It appears that all are now plunging towards doom and disaster but, delightfully, things, while not suddenly turning out brilliant, do not end up as badly as one might expect. I appreciated this as much as I did the superb observational skill of the writer and the extraordinarily vivid way in which she created the world of her novel.

A really excellent book about a group of people who could easily be overlooked and considered boring but who turn out to be fascinating and entirely human. I loved it.

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