I picked this book out on Wednesday. Little did I know that today’s read would take on an additional ironic significance, as last night at 4:30 in the morning I found a bat underneath my bed… For my next read I’ve decided to play it safe and have avoided Elizabeth Ferrars’ Frog in the Throat… I’m not risking it, for a while at least.
But back to Fremlin’s novel. It commences with Mary, who is starting a new life for herself. There are shades of shadiness though: she’s not able to give any references to her new landlady or an exact previous address, nor she is able to mention her qualifications or previous employer to prospective employers. Dusk is ‘the best time for’ her. Oh, and then there’s her aversion to bats: ‘she could not have borne to watch them; not after what had happened…’
The narrative then switches to a new lodger, Alice Saunders. Her husband has left her, (here we see the similar theme found in Appointment with Yesterday (1972), of the middle aged wife being chucked by the husband), and she has decided to eschew money and belongings and ends up living in much more reduced circumstances. In fact, she is living in a leaky attic room, with a sodden divan and more household junk than a car boot sale. Yet she is determined to stay. Fremlin describes the room in this way:
‘It could have been a film set for one of those Sci. Fi. movies about the collapse of technological civilisation: enlarged to monster size on the big screen, it would look like the whole world crumbling to ruin. And there in the middle of it was Alice, the last humanoid left alive after whatever-it-was, inter-planetary war, or something.’
Most of the narrative is told from her perspective as she gets to know the other lodgers in the building and she quickly builds a new life for herself. The same cannot be said for Mary and there is growing sense amongst the tenants that something is deeply wrong. Will she be able to unburden herself? Will she be able to build a new life of her own? And who is the man who is trying to track her down?
Out of the four novels by Fremlin that I have read, I would say this story has the loosest mystery and in comparison to the other texts, it has the gentlest suspense. Perhaps it is better described as a psychological crime novel, in the vein of some of Ruth Rendell’s work, as it is less about giving immediate peril or a puzzle to solve and more about understanding a killer’s mindset and the consequences a killer’s actions have on their relatives. Grave matters are raised and explored, but there is no anxiety on the reader’s part for anyone’s safety in the present. Peril when it squeezes itself into the end of the book is too late to produce any chills for the reader. After the first few chapters there is much less tension than is often found in a Fremlin novel.
However, I would not say this is an unreadable or poor book. It’s more a case of having the right expectations going in and fortunately Fremlin is a wonderful storyteller and an accomplished writer when it comes to characters and depicting social dynamics. And I would go as far as saying that this book is worth reading just for those qualities alone, though perhaps not as an introduction to Fremlin’s work. Interestingly I would also postulate that this is a form of eco-crime novel, with the environment and the destruction of, playing an important role in the second half of the novel and I think Fremlin deals with this subject in an engaging way.
Surprisingly this is also quite a comic novel in a number of scenes, a tone which doesn’t have a jarring effect on the rest of the plot; perhaps because it has a milder version of suspense running through it as a whole. One of Alice’s tutees and his parents are a good example of this humour and I loved seeing the parents despair at their son’s desire to learn Greek, (as though it was some kind of taboo activity), but equally desperate that they don’t deny his wishes for tutoring in the subject and thus ‘drive it underground.’ After all, ‘there are signs that he may be already learning in secret’! Parenting is a theme which provides Fremlin a lot of scope for social commentary or lampooning. Furthermore, there is also the moment in which Cyril’s mother is extolling their practice of giving their younger daughter tractors to play with in order to avoid gender stereotyping through toys, when the daughter in question proceeds to play with the tractor as though it were a doll.
So this might not be the Fremlin novel to start out with if you are new to her work; The Hours Before Dawn (1958) and The Long Shadow (1975) are the ones I would recommend for that, but for those more familiar with her stories, I would say it was still worth picking up at a reasonable price.
Calendar of Crime: October (8) Month Related Item on the Cover (Spooky Scene)