Book Review: Everlasting Lane

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Everlasting Lane, by Andrew Lovett, explores the effects of trauma on both the present and memory. Told from the point of view of ten year old Peter Lambert, who moves with his mother to a cottage on Everlasting Lane in the village of Amberley following the death of his father, it is a poignant tale of the difficulty of communication and lack of understanding between children and adults. It is about choices and their consequences, of the dangers of secrets and what reality means to each individual.

On his first day in his new surroundings Peter meets Anna-Marie, a slightly older girl who appears to spurn authority. Anna-Marie possesses a curiosity apparently lacking in Peter. The boy lives for the moment, conjuring from his surroundings imaginary worlds that he weaves into his games. What may appear obvious to adults, there in plain sight, he ignores fearing what he may learn and have to face.

Set in the mid 1970s the village harbours damaged survivors from the Second World War attempting to cope with their experiences amidst the disparagement of those who do not understand why they act as they do. It also has a sadistic headmistress whose religious vehemence borders on the deranged. Other than inciting fear, the eccentricities of these adults are accepted by the children. Adults, after all, rarely act in ways that children can reason with. Words that are understood by both are hard to find; deeds are done to the young over which they exert scant control.

Anna-Marie introduces Peter to a classmate, Tommie, and the three form a fractious friendship group with the girl as their leader. They wander the village exploring places where they often shouldn’t be. When Peter mentions that there is a room in his cottage which his mother keeps locked and has never talked of, the trio set out to discover what it contains.

Their findings offer up a mystery to be solved. Anna-Marie uses this as a distraction from her own fears of impending secondary school little realising the effect their discoveries will have on Peter, who himself lives unaware of the traumas in his friends’ lives.

Although childhood contains the innocence of a lack of wider knowledge and understanding there is little serene about living with the cruelties and constant oneupmanship of peers and the frustrations of rules imposed by the plethora of micromanaging adults. This world is brilliantly, painfully evoked. Peter’s mother is doing her best but has her own demons to face. Neither can effectively communicate to the other how they feel.

“he was talking like he thought things that weren’t real weren’t as important as things that were. […] But I think they’re wrong in a way because there was a lot of stuff in my head that wasn’t real but was really important: like the things I wanted to happen or the things I wished had happened instead of the things that had.”

Peter is living with the consequences of actions that set off chains of events affecting the people he relied on for love. The story is told as a simple childhood mystery yet it contains layers of emotion. The writing is subtle yet devastating in its perceptiveness.

Whilst empathising with each of the main characters I could see no way around the dilemmas they faced. Peter was urged to focus on what was important, but those urging could only comprehend what seemed important to them.

The story got under my skin. It is distressing in places yet woven together with skill and sensitivity. It is a reminder that words needed at a critical moment can too often prove elusive. This is a tale worthy of wider consideration.

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Book Review: The Little Friend

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Many years ago I read and enjoyed ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt. When I discovered that she had a new book coming out last year (The Goldfinch), I scanned the internet eagerly for reviews. It was only then that I realised she had published a book in between these two. ‘The Little Friend’ hit the shops when my kids were little and I was struggling to find the time and the energy to read much fiction. I added the book to my ever growing ‘to read’ pile and, this past weekend, eagerly dipped in.

The protagonist is a twelve year old girl who has been largely brought up by the family maid and an assortment of elderly relatives, following the death of her brother when she was a baby. Her mother spends much of her time in bed, drugged and depressed, while her father is living in another town with his mistress.

‘The Little Friend’ is beautifully written, with plenty of interesting characters whose background is explored and developed in pleasing and believable detail. The setting is painted in evocative prose that draws the reader into the time and place so richly described. I could almost smell the dry air, the rain when it fell, hear the silence or the grass blowing in the wind. Much as I enjoyed the book however, it had it’s flaws.

The beginning impressed with some perceptive views on memory and how we mould the past to suit our current needs. As the author begins to weave the plot, slowly unfolding the world of the book for her reader’s delectation, I was drawn in and became eager to know what happened next. All of this makes it a well written book to be enjoyed.

My main issue is that the characters she created contained so many stereotypes. The baddies, with their drugs and their limiting outlook on life, particularly the insidious commentary from the matriarch and the blinkered outlook of the parents, seemed to fit too neatly the media perception of trailer trash. A hopeless picture was painted, despite there being potential amongst a few. These characters appeared weak and unlikeable.

Blame for the wildness of the protagonist seemed too typical of a neglected child who no one felt the need to listen to. This was explored in some detail with the lives of the elderly relatives being cited and the hardship of the maid’s life described. Still though, I felt dissatisfied that nobody in the cast took notice of the child.  It is always so easy to blame parents for all ills, when the reality of life is more complex.

The book contains a lot of descriptive prose. While this served to set the scene or add depth to a character, it did in places become a little tedious. I grew tired of reading about drug taking and unpleasantness. It is a strength of the plot that I was impatient to move on, to find out what happened next.

I liked that the difficulties in communication between children and adults was highlighted. I also liked the contrast between the girl’s chaotic home life and that of her more normal little friend. Other plot devices seemed less realistic, such as why the sharp grandmother had not noticed the true state of her daughter’s home, despite being aware of her lassitude and lack of care for her children.

The book, as with life, did not finish cleanly. The main story being told was wrapped up, but it was clear that the impact would continue. When a complex tale has been told I much prefer a book that allows the reader to extrapolate; happy ever after is unrealistic. With this book, however, I felt that so much had been started that I struggled to hold on to all the threads explored. The pattern of the weaving was beautiful and complex, but the ending was left frayed. Perhaps the author wished her readers to consider that all may still unravel.

Despite these few misgivings I would still highly recommend this book. It is one that I will be thinking about for some time to come; a powerful, compelling and sometimes uncomfortable read. The characters came alive in a setting that was vivid and generally believable. It reminds the reader that we often choose to look away when confronted with a reality that would be personally challenging.

 

Memories and other fictional stories

The Remember the Time Blog Hop has not vanished, but it has changed from weekly to monthly. It also has a brand new badge! This month’s theme is: write about your earliest memory. 

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My first, clear memories are not my own. They are photographs in an old chocolate box, carefully stored away in my parent’s wardrobe. They are points of discussion when family members get together.

‘Do you remember when…. ?’ and often I do. But I think of that time as a moment in a long distant childhood. My memories are not ordered chronologically, but by merit or significance in a life that is now gone.

My cousin shared a photograph on Facebook of all the young cousins standing outside a house. I think I remember that day, but cannot be sure. I remember the photograph clearly, how my sister hated it because she was the tallest and disliked her height, how the youngest would not stand still while the image was captured. Do I  remember when it was taken though, or a copy of the picture that was given to my mother, that I have looked at many times since?

I have a photograph of my brother, in the driveway of our parent’s house with his first motorbike. I remember that day, desperately wanting to ride behind him after he offered my sister this privilege. I am told that he used his motorbike to transport him to and from school, yet I can only recall when he was at our childhood home during university vacations, not when he lived there full time. I do not recall seeing him in school uniform; we have no photographs of that. My memories are muddled, disordered, yet my feelings from that bike day seem clear.

Times captured in photographs, music or significant events stand out. There was the night when my sister and I made too much noise after lights out and my father, who left it to my mother to discipline us, came up and shouted angrily, reducing us to tears. There was the day when our garden was being dug over for a vegetable patch, and we threw clods of earth onto a neighbours path. My mother beat us for embarrassing her with our inexplicable behaviour.

I remember locking myself in my bedroom when the handle had been removed to allow the door to be painted. I pulled out the exposed mechanism from the inside and then could not replace it. I had to drop it out the window to allow my mother to release me. What age was I then? I have no idea.

Sometimes I recall an event that I remember as having happened when I was perhaps eight or nine years old. When I put it into context alongside a song or a recorded historical event, I realise that I must have been twelve or thirteen. I recoil at the idea that I was still so childish at that age.

There are memories that are mine and mine alone. Events that involved other family members, but which they do not recall. What was significant to me passed them by, or has been interpreted quite differently in their minds.

When older family members talk of events from their children’s childhood, their recollections are often at odds with those held by the now adult child. It makes me distrustful of my own memories. At what point do we start to weave our prejudices and subsequent experiences into what we think we remember from before? Life may be linear but memory is not.

I have worked hard to give my children happy experiences to look back on, yet recognise that what they remember from their childhood is unlikely to be what I hoped and intended. Already my daughter mentions events that affected her negatively, yet cannot recall activities that were planned so carefully for her benefit.

In my head my first memory is of lying in a carrycot on the back seat of my father’s car with my brother looking down on me. If I was young enough to be in a carrycot then surely I was too young to form a lasting memory; I do not even know if my father had a car when I was this age. Could a memory be formed many years later from events that I have merely been told happened?

It can be lovely to get together with an old friend and recall shared history, reminiscing, reminding each other of the detail of forgotten escapades. How much is this weaving together of good times gone by an act of creation? How much is memory affected by where we are here and now?

School photographs

Another post created for the ‘Remember the Time’ Blog Hop. 

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This week my daughter, newly enrolled into sixth form, had her photograph taken by the official, school photographer. She looks good in it; she looks natural, beautiful and totally herself. I was amazed when I saw the sample print; this is a first. We have many good photographs of my lovely daughter, but none from her secondary school; none until now.

Whoever said that the camera never lies was lying. A good photograph is a rare and precious thing; a good school photograph practically unheard of. I have perhaps one or two good photographs taken of my children at school, mainly from when they were so small and cute that it would have been hard to make them look otherwise. The greater part of the historical record of my own school attendance is best left where it is, gathering dust in the darkest recesses of my parents closets in another country.

Not all school photographs are dreadful, but most are embarrassing. The first photograph taken of me by a school photographer shows an image of a happy and smiling if slightly chubby little boy dressed in the close fitting uniform of my primary school.

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Except I was not a boy. Everyone who looked on this photograph commented on my lack of femininity. I was unperturbed; at six years old it was my heart’s desire to be a male of the species when I grew up. I was delighted when my mother gave me a two piece swimsuit as I could discard the top half and pretend. The skirts and pinafores that she made me wear from time to time were an irritation.

The next school photograph that I remember was taken a few years later and included my older sister. As I wish to stay on good terms with her I will not include it here, but it records a moment when we sat side by side, looking awkward. Again I was short haired and chubby in close fitting clothes. How do some young children manage to look cool? I would wonder if style is genetic except my mother was always on trend; how she must have despaired over me. Perhaps the tight clothes were a denial on her part that I carried as much weight as I did. I certainly loved my food.

At some point after this I decided to grow my hair and the moment was captured in school for posterity. If I didn’t look so world weary in this it might have been considered an improvement on the previous effort. The shadows under my eyes suggest more cares in the world than a nine year old should be aware of, and why oh why did I button that shirt up to the neck?

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Moving on a few years and photographs of me in another uniform appear as I moved up to grammar school. Despite the restrictions of sensible pinafores or A-line skirts topped by woollen jumpers and ties, some of my peers looked good. I did not. As a late developer with bad skin my school years were spent trying to remain invisible. I believe that I largely succeeded. If official school photographs of me exist at this stage then I do not have the copies. I know I was there though because of the existence of images such as this one. The hair has gone again but not the goofiness.

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I remember as a teenager going round to friend’s houses and looking with interest at the school photographs that their parents proudly displayed. How, I wondered, did these people manage to look natural and happy when recorded in this way. Even now when I am put in front of a camera my smile is overdone, my head held at the most unflattering angle and my body arched to resemble the shape of a potato. Please reassure me that the camera can lie.

In a way I am pleased that these old photographs exist for us to cringe and laugh over. Much of childhood is forgotten as we age with only the particularly memorable, happy or traumatic events etched into our conciousness. I do though remember each of the days when these photographs were taken. I wonder what that tells me.