GOD ON THE ROCKS by Jane Gardam

Book Quote:

“Because the baby had come, special attention had to be given to Margaret, who was eight. On Wednesdays therefore she was to go out with Lydia the maid for the whole afternoon. […] Maybe to Eastkirk — and a nice walk about on the Front and down the woodland.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate В (OCT 27, 2010)

And so begins the delightful 1978 novel by Jane Gardam, with an exquisitely described trip on a local train that “went slowly, see-sawing from side to side in the dusty coach with blinds with buttoned ends and a stiff leather strap arched like a tongue on the carriage door,” a pitch-perfect evocation of Britain between the Wars. What begins for Margaret Marsh is nothing less than the gradual opening of her eyes to the complexity of the adult world. For until the new baby provided a distraction, she had been protected from worldly things by her bank-manager father, a puritanical believer. “He and his wife were members of the Primal Saints and most of their free time was spent in the local Primal Hall down Turner Street — a very nasty street of plum and sandstone and silence.” Yet Margaret loves her father and has applied her considerable intelligence to acquiring a prodigious knowledge of Bible verses, all referred to by name and number, as in: “Her feet were on the earth and her life yielding fruit Genesis one eleven.” Or: “She wondered two Corinthians five one whether she had seen a home not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

I admit that I may not be the most objective reviewer, since much of my enjoyment comes from the fact that this is MY world she is describing — a small seaside resort in Northern Britain, such as the one where I grew up. Instead of the dying sputters of the candle that fitfully illuminated the postwar austerity of my own childhood, Gardam moves her action back half a generation to the mid-thirties when there was ALWAYS a band in the bandstand, ices on the promenade, and pierrots on the pier. And preachers on the beach, with tambourines and trombones, tracts and hymn-singing — uplifting entertainments that flourished in the recession to form part of my childhood also.

Given the Saints’ prohibition on frivolity of all kinds, Margaret’s seaside excursions are like an entry into a different world. Accompanied by Lydia — a decidedly secular and sexual woman, although nominally also a Saint — her eyes are opened to more than mere seaside attractions. She stumbles upon a great house converted into a sanatorium for shell-shock victims, and then finds Lydia flirting rather physically with the gardener. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is watching the author gradually adjust the language from the child’s-eye view of the opening descriptions to a more adult perspective, as Margaret learns, albeit from a distance, the lineaments of denial and desire, dimly perceives the consequences of divisions in class, and discovers that her idols have feet of clay. The author’s focus gradually changes also to the older generations, exploring the frustrations of Margaret’s mother, the ripples caused by the return of some old childhood friends, and the machinations of a rich old lady dying in the big house.

In observing adult behavior through the eyes of a child, Gardam writes within an established tradition, as exemplified by Henry James’ What Maisie Knew or L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. But she has her own special flavor, whose simple storytelling hides considerable emotional complexity. Readers of her later books such as Old Filth and The Man with the Wooden Hat will know the mixture of pathos, humanity, sadness, and warm humor that she can create, and will not be surprised when everything connects up in somewhat hopeful fashion at the end — although I did feel that the postlude here was a little too obviously tacked on. All the same, this beautifully produced Europa reprint makes a fascinating piece of time-travel well worth taking, even for those who did not grow up in the atmosphere it describes.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 56 readers
PUBLISHER: Europa Editions (October 26, 2010)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Wikipedia page on Jane Gardam
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Read our reviews for:


Old Filth Trilogy

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  • A Few Fair Days : Stories (1971)
  • The Summer After the Funeral (1973)
  • The Hollow Land (1981)В whitbread
  • Tufty Bear (1996)


  • The Iron Coast (1994)

October 27, 2010 В· Judi Clark В· No Comments
Tags: , , ,  В· Posted in: Coming-of-Age, Facing History, United Kingdom, y Award Winning Author

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