The Clocks In This House All Tell Different Times, by Xan Brooks, is a mesmeric tale of loss and survival. Set a few years after the end of the First World War, its cast of characters include those who have returned from the conflict and the families of those who did not. There are the bruised and haunted, scoundrals and chancers, and the wealthy privileged whose carefully managed roles ensured they were barely touched. All wish to look to the future yet remain affected by the still recent past.
Lucy Marsh and her younger brother Tom, having been left orphans, are sent to live with their paternal grandparents who run a now failing pub. Money is tight so Lucy, along with three other young teenagers, is sent to work with two groundsmen from Grantwood House, the home of Lord Hertford. His Lordship runs a charitable foundation which helps injured war veterans and has provided accommodation on his estate for four soldiers who suffered horrific injuries in the war. Each Sunday evening the children are driven to Epping Forest where they are required to spend time with these men.
The leader amongst the children is Winifred. She and Lucy become friends. They refer to the damaged soldiers as the Funny Men and have their favourites, regarding the behaviour required of them as distasteful but not so much worse than other tasks demanded of them at home. The forest evenings have interludes when they can savour small pleasures rarely offered in their difficult lives. Despite why they pay for the youngsters company, the Funny Men provide an enlightening, if disquieting, diversion.
“He tells her that the trees in the forest are several centuries old but have been kept healthy by a process called pollarding, which involves stripping back the upper limbs. When a tree is top heavy it will topple or split and very likely crash into its neighbours and bring them down as well. The pollarding prevents that; it ensures growth and progress. He says that every society, however advanced, could use some pollarding every now and again.”
When events force an end to these outings Lucy and Winifred become more directly involved with goings on at Grantwood House. The heir to the estate gathers misfits and miscreants to entertain him and his peers at drug fuelled parties. Over the course of a summer he draws the Funny Men into this web. The heir and his father believe themselves to be forward thinking, benevolent supporters of the downtrodden proletariat. Naturally they regard themselves as superior.
“Mobility and equality – these are things I will always support. And yet it follows that mobility is most effective and lasting when it is properly regulated. This is why we look to sensible, progressive members of the ruling class. To ensure there is free movement and proper fairness for all. […] Let me state it quite plainly. Men like him have done more for men like you than men like you have ever done for yourself.”
The author has created a compelling tale and so much more. The actions of each of the characters are in many ways reprehensible yet, given circumstances, the reader cannot help but empathise. There is a lingering poignancy but also resilience and determination. Despite the catastrophic climax the denouement is uplifting.
A book with heart and soul that is original, penetrative and engaging. It should be relished by every discerning reader.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.