"He can write about a hero, but he cannot be one."
Larchfield will be released on 23rd March. It is written by Polly Clark and published by Quercus.
Larchfield is one of those books that is well written, has fleshed-out characters and covers interesting themes, but it's also one I just could not get into. I should like it, I know, it ticks all the boxes but I really struggled to finish it. Maybe I'm just not intellectual enough. I only know a couple of W. H. Auden's poems and not much else about him. Whatever it was I just didn't connect with this book.
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 her 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.
Even though I didn't particularly enjoy Larchfield, it's really difficult to pick out anything that's wrong with it. There were elements that in theory should all work, but put them all together and it just didn't do anything for me.
The characters are interesting and thoroughly explored. Both Dora and Auden felt real, even if Auden's portrayal if fictionalised. You can feel the isolation and desperation that they both suffer.
Polly Clark is good at pinning down characters on the page, both psychologically and physically. I like her descriptions of characters which allowed you to see them fully.
"Mrs Perkins sees a most intriguing young man, odd to look at, certainly, with a long, ungainly face, fragile skin and large ears. He's very tall and unaccustomed to managing height, so seems to lop and flail. His eyes are pale blue and penetrating, however, and he has a manner about him that is unreadable. She cannot tell what he is thinking at all, unlike all the boys who parade in and out of this room."
Yet for some reason I just didn't feel that invested in either of them. I liked Auden a bit more but really couldn't connect with Dora. Which is odd as I felt she is a good representation of someone suffering from isolation and stress, topics I can empathise with. But, sometimes she irritated me with the way she handled the neighbours. The whole 'neighbours from hell' story-line didn't do anything for me really, instead of making me want to read on and hope they got their comeuppance they just irritated me and I wasn't interested enough to really care. I also felt like the story-line just tailed off and didn't have a satisfying conclusion.
I was interested in the themes that this book covers, such as depression, motherhood, class, and homosexuality. I was interested in the way that Auden dealt with his homosexuality in a time when it was illegal to be gay. His own shame at himself is heartbreaking and I thought the way Clark handled this, and his love story, was both sad and beautiful.
"Why does God despise him so? Of course, he knows why. He was the brilliant, delightful son of a good mother, who got stuck somehow and became an abomination.
Christopher manages not to feel this cancerous shame. Christopher coexists with his nature - embraces it, even. But then, he does live in Berlin."
And yet...I think maybe the subjects were just a bit too depressing and I didn't really want to keep reading. Also the writing, which is undoubtedly brilliant, was almost too good, in that the book is infused with a desperation mixed with lethargy, especially in Dora's case, and I think the lethargy spread to me and I just could not be bothered with it.
I think lots of people will like Larchfield, and for good reason, and I can't fault Polly Clark's skill with words. This book just wasn't for me.
My Rating: 3 Stars
I received a digital copy of Larchfield via NetGalley in return for an honest review. My thanks to the author and publisher.