It has been quite a while since I have sampled a Fremlin novel, too long in fact. So a few weeks ago I decided to search around for one I had not read yet, which was reasonably priced. I came across today’s read and remembered it as one which had garnered a lot of praise from fellow Fremlin fans on Twitter.
Here is what the story is all about…
‘Meg and Isabel were just girls when “Uncle Paul” married their older half-sister Mildred, and he soon vanished from their lives upon his exposure as a bigamist and a murderer. Fifteen years later, Uncle Paul is about to be released from prison, and all three sisters are seized with dread at the prospect of his return. Their family holiday at the seaside village where Mildred and Uncle Paul once honeymooned becomes the setting for a tense drama of suspicion, betrayal, and revenge.’
This is my fifth read by Fremlin. My favourite to date is Appointment with Yesterday (1972) which gained a rare 5/5 rating, and this title is swiftly followed by The Hours Before Dawn (1958) and The long Shadow (1975). My least favourite was Listening in the Dusk (1990), but even that story gained a solid 4/5. Unfortunately though I now have a new least favourite.
When it comes to the caravan seaside holiday setting, characterisation and character dynamics Fremlin is mostly still on top form. Fremlin conjures up the grim reality of holidaying in a primitive caravan in the rain brilliantly. Yet this time the problem occurs within the plotting. Fremlin does indeed take you down the garden path, projecting a different narrative ending to the one you eventually get a hold of. The twist at the end, in and of itself, is really good. It recasts the situation completely. So why didn’t it work? Having thought about it whilst reading the book and afterwards I think it comes down to the nature of the plot which precedes it. Essentially it is a long line of false alarms, revolving around Uncle Paul and the possibility of his release. Some of these moments of brief terror which are quickly dispelled are well-crafted. There is one involving the caravan in a Goldilock-esque sequence which is especially good.
Nevertheless, in a novella or short story this series of false alarms would have worked well, as Fremlin often slips them in when you least expect it. But in a 200 paged novel the effect is significantly weakened. The alarms become a bit wearing. When it comes to imagined versus actual danger, the book leans too heavily on the former. With a story that length more tangibility was needed and in between counterfeit terrors not a lot happens. Also uncharacteristically, for me, I managed to spot quite a large hole in the plausibility of the ending. The denouement is strong, but it remains imperfect if you cotton onto the idea that I had, which ties into certain character actions lacking believability.
As I said above the characterisation is mostly good, and the author’s depiction of the triangular relationship between the sisters is highly nuanced and lifelike. In particular the story conveys well in a gently-comic fashion, how Meg has to deal with the unreasonableness of others. For instance, in one part of the book Meg has to set up an ad-hoc burglar alarm out of odds and ends on every door so Mildred will go to sleep in the isolated cottage. Only then for Mildred to insist on having some tea, which of course requires getting coal from outside to heat the water, so of course all of the burglar alarms have to be dismantled, before being put up again. Naturally on the way to the coal, in the pitch black, Mildred manages to warn Meg of obstacles just after she has walked straight into them.
However, Fremlin’s incorporation of a Francis Iles themes, shall I say, marred the narrative in my opinion. Surprisingly her handling of it came across less successfully for me, especially when it came to Meg; the youngest sister in the trio. Meg is set up as the Anne Elliot character, the one who is always put upon by her self-centred and self-dramatising sisters. She is shown to be capable and competent. Yet Fremlin tries to tack on heroine in jeopardy elements and heroine-I’m-completely-potty-and-want-to-be-loyal-to-a-murderer moments. These components simply do not fit well on to Meg’s character which soon swings back into being rational and reasonable.
So alas this time around I am swimming against the tide of common opinion on this book. Perhaps it is because I have read several others by the writer which are her best and this one can only seem weaker in comparison. Or maybe I went into the book with the wrong expectations. Nevertheless, I would recommend new readers starting elsewhere.