Books May 2004

Neat Structure, Grand Notions

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Read one page of this English comedy and you'll not be surprised to learn that Gardam already has two Whitbread Awards under her belt. Her characters, Dickensian in their number, variety, and abounding eccentricities, carry on so convincingly that she seems to be channeling, rather than creating, these people. Tough and loquacious Surrey matrons, a Yorkshire ascetic and his Oxbridge-accented former hippie wife (who, it turns out, is in love with his brother), a precocious and needy eleven-year-old, an endearingly prickly former schoolmaster and his wife, make up only a very few of those who circle, pretty much helplessly, the infant Faith Fox, orphaned from the first sentence. As in most comedies, life is dark here, both literally—hours elapse between breakfast and sunrise in the north of England in December—and figuratively. Faith's grandfather sums up the view that prevails throughout most of the novel: "By God, Dolly, it's a bloody awful condition, humanity. Everyone dying except the ones you'd never miss, and not a body coming in to see you." Brilliantly, however, Gardam pokes fun at despair, sensible though it may be. "There's someone coming now," Dolly responds in this particular instance. "I heard the gate." This novel is so lively and colorful, and conveys the hopelessness of life so amusingly, that I could hardly believe, halfway through, that I was considering giving it up. Why, I wondered, are modern English characters so often detached and difficult to warm to, at least for an American reader? And here, I thought, is an example of terrific but pointless writing, observations wonderfully true and remarkably expressed that can't possibly add up to anything in the end—the problem with so much contemporary fiction. Luckily, I rarely listen to myself, because I could not have been more wrong. Gardam couples her genius for the close-up, perfectly rendered portrait with a taste for satisfyingly neat structure and grand notions of hope for humanity; those detached characters are all wearing their hearts on their sleeves by the novel's finish. She gets away in the end even with the hokey touch of giving Faith's name significance, because she's made you entirely forget that such a thing is possible.

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