Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Larchfield - Polly Clark

It's early summer when a young poet, Dora Fielding, moves to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland and her hopes are first challenged. Newly married, pregnant, she's excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity. She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong. As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether.

Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Wystan H. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on success and society in London. Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected - rightly - of homosexuality. Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears.
The need for human connection compels these two vulnerable outsiders to find each other and make a reality of their own that will save them both. Echoing the depths of Possession, the elegance of The Stranger's Child and the ingenuity of Longbourn, Larchfield is a beautiful and haunting novel about heroism - the unusual bravery that allows unusual people to go on living; to transcend banality and suffering with the power of their imagination.

What I thought:

This isn't a book that I would normally choose to buy. I absolutely love the cover, but poetry? I don't think I've read a poem since A Child's Garden of Verse, when I was about six years old. From then on, my relationship with poetry just went downhill, but that cover just pulled me in and I decided to give the book a go.

It's 1930 and a time for great change for Wystan Auden. His first book of poetry has been accepted for publication but instead of celebrating and enjoying a busy social life in London, he finds himself heading off to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland to take up the position of schoolmaster at Larchfield, a boarding school for boys. His fiancee recently broke off their engagement, probably, (and quite rightly,) suspecting he was homosexual, which was at that time, (I think) illegal in this country. Sadly, right now, he cannot imagine a future where he will fit.

First of all, it's not about poetry and you certainly don't have to love poetry to love this book. The story is of two totally different people who both happen to be poets. The chapters alternate between Wystan's story and Dora's story.

Treated mostly with disdain by both staff and pupils, Wystan finds an ally in the Headmaster's wife, Daphne Perkins, who spends most of her time "dying" in an upper room. They form a special relationship, sharing both gossip and her medication.

I had real affection for Wystan. His awkwardness and compassion for pupils won me over.

Present day, and Dora, a poet, newly married and expecting her first child, leaves her professional city life behind and excitedly moves to Helensburgh. Her new home, Paradise, was once a mansion but has now been divided into two flats, Paradise Upper and Paradise Lower. Dora and her husband Kit live in the lower flat and above live Mel and Terrence Divine. Terrence is an elder in the church and Mo runs the Sunday School, both highly respected within the local community.

Beatrice, is born unexpectedly early, and looking after such a tiny baby is a full-time job for Dora. Alone and vulnerable, all she gets from her upstairs neighbours is hostility and she soon finds herself isolated, shunned by her local community.

I didn't initially warm to Dora, but I really feared for her as her life began to fall apart, both physically and mentally.

Two completely different people, different times, but both vulnerable, tormented and struggling to survive themselves.

There is so much to this story, so many "gaspy" moments. Moving and tender, shocking and even uncomfortable at times, but all adding to the overall enjoyment of this utterly compelling read.

I loved this book. I mean I REALLY loved this book. It's different and it's unforgettable and it's highly recommended by me.