The Hours Before Dawn (1958) by Celia Fremlin

Today’s read is part of my unplanned continuation of delving into 1940s and 50s domestic psychological suspense fiction, which as I read more of it, feels increasingly like a subgenre which is an offshoot or descendant of sensation fiction, given their similar tendencies for revealing chilling secrets beneath socially respectable veneers. The Hours Before Dawn (1958) is the first novel Fremlin published and was inspired by her own sleepless nights when she had her second child, who would cry through the night. In this sleep deprived state she once wondered why no one was writing about this particular life experience. Sometime later this novel is her response and what a chilling one it is…

Louise Henderson is such a young mum. She has two primary school aged daughters and a 6 month baby named Michael. Due to his tendency to scream most of the night unless attended, Louise is exhausted. That much is evident from the narrative which embodies her loss of concentration and ability to think coherently. Even worse for her there is a lack of support around her. Her husband does not appreciate the immense pressure she is under and is frequently irritable and quarrelsome. The local health care staff tell her not to worry about the night screaming, (easier to say when you’re not there of course), and the neighbours are not best pleased with the loss of sleep they are suffering from too. Having a doormat personality Louise also gets put upon by other less considerate mothers. It is not surprising that you feel almost immediate sympathy for Louise and her situation.

Into this chaos comes a lodger, a schoolteacher named Vera Brandon. Louise is surprised that Vera seems quite happy to reside with them, given the wild behaviour of her children and whilst she keeps trying to battle with the never decreasing work load at home she begins to wonder more and more about her lodger… Why has she decided to live with them? Is she spying on them and creeping around the house? Is she trying to steal her husband? And why does she, her husband and some of her friends think they’ve seen her before? Of course there is also the possibility that Louise is blowing all these small and accumulating niggles out of proportion, as her mental state degenerates under the exhaustion.

Overall Thoughts

If I only had one word to describe this book, one possible word choice on my part would be: Impact, as I really felt that this story has a lot of it. Fremlin vividly recreates what it is like to be a young mother rushed off her feet and the sheer fatigue and exhaustion of a job people can take for granted. She really does transcribe brilliantly and starkly the sleep deprived state and how it affects your perceptions and consciousness.

Given the time period this was written in I think the plot line would have had even more impact at the time, when female worth was still being equated with how well you cared for your family and home. What the neighbours think, what your friends think, are nagging and insistent agonies Louise has to bear. Alongside this theme Fremlin also weaves in how mothers are perceived and what people think mothers ought to be like. Her cast of characters contains a whole range of mother types including those who hated having their children. You could say this theme is almost as prevalent as Michael’s crying fits. Incidentally it is somewhat telling that this theme is largely handled in the dialogue of the female characters, most of whom are mothers. Though at times it can be seen in Louise’s own disjointed thoughts:

‘Louise stopped, uneasily conscious that she was beginning to run on about her children in just the kind of what that up-to-date mothers must be so careful to avoid. To tall shop if you are a mother is not socially permissible as it is if you are a typist or a bus conductress.’

Whilst the plot line itself, in terms of events, will seem very simple and domestic, Fremlin creates a taut line of suspense and tension, as you don’t know what will happen next or what direction the story will take. The way Louise is potentially an unreliable narrator feeds into this and the infrequent mentioning of Medea, leaves the reader unsettled and on edge. The speed at which peculiar events occur is just right. It is not too fast that the ending is quickly deduced, but nor is it too slow that you think it is all a figment of Louise’s imagination. The speed is of that murky middle ground where the evidence can go either way, leaving Louise in a state of doubting herself and her own sanity.

Unsurprisingly this is a book I highly rate and I will definitely be seeking out more books by this author, who has a strong skill in characterisation, plotting and atmosphere.

Rating: 4.5/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Moon

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10 comments

  1. This sounds like a great read and the fact that Fremlin was writing partly from her own experience makes it that much more interesting (I can personally relate to the sleep deprivation issues and worries of having a fractious baby).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like a scary and chilling read – thanks for the review! I’m still undecided as to whether or not I should venture into the domestic thriller genre, though I do have some Mary Roberts Rhinehart and Ethel Lina White awaiting me in my Kindle.

    Liked by 1 person

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