20 books of summer pile 2017Another fantastic Persephone – I’ve read Sherriff’s wonderful “The Fortnight in September“, unfortunately not in the Persephone edition because I bought it before that came out (a decade ago, I notice), and I was very pleased to open this from Ali on Christmas Day last year.

R. C. Sherriff – “Greengates”

(25 December 2016 – from Ali)

You wouldn’t think you could get a whole book out of a retired couple buying a house, but this is the master of making the everyday fascinating and it’s an absorbing and poignant read.

It opens with Tom Baldwin’s last day at work in an insurance office in London, where he has to be ‘surprised’ by a retirement gift giving the pattern of which he’s seen infinite numbers of times before. We see him retire at 58 (lucky him!), full of ideas for the future and plans to make his mark on the world, and then at home, gleeful in his possession of a house and land:

A vast wedge that tapered slowly away until as a minute pin-point it met everybody else’s land.

– who, after reading that, will think of their garden in exactly the same way again? But then he very quickly upsets their long-standing maid (who contributes much of the poignancy to the book, aching for her mistress’s sorrows and, when the time comes, doing the right thing neatly and unobtrusively), and his wife Edith starts to very much regret the assumption that when he retires, she retires, too, losing her light lunch and her afternoon naps with much reluctance and guilt:

The slave to a habit that showed its teeth when it was disturbed.

They gradually fall into bitter despair: Tom sees that his historical researches are going to go nowhere and realises it’s hard to make your mark on the world, and Edith is driven down by his depression and her inability to make 12 hours’ worth of conversation a day. Tom even starts to be drawn to the comforts of becoming semi-invalid, and as they leave the house to take a walk, one of the neighbours pegs him as someone who’s a potential suicide, something linking back to a newspaper article he read on his final train journey home (we’ll see more of these clever little links later).

But in fact, they’re about to embark upon a life-changing experience, and we will them on as they scrape the money together and hope they will be able to negotiate a new life in one of those new developments that sprang up in the 1930s (that we’re all aware of now). will they manage to sell their house and achieve their new dreams, and will those dreams, once fulfilled, actually be all they hoped?

There are some lovely side characters and flashes of deep emotion and humour – such as when Tom categorises a new friend by how he refers to his wife (“The wife” is worse than “My wife”). The charming epilogue rounds things off and provides an interesting contrast: when they are first described looking at the landscape, which Edith is criticised for preferring to castles and other historic monuments, her knowledge of the trees is shut down by her husband. Yet when their garden has finally burgeoned, it’s because she has taken it over and, presumably, balance has been restored.

This book falls into the All Virago/Persephone All August category AND is Book 19 in my #20BooksofSummer project.