2013 October 25 • Friday
It doesn't pay off very much these days but I still browse The Strand for inexpensive books older than I am that have cool dust jackets. Here's one I found there a few years ago.
It was actually the spine that first caught my eye.
If the cover wasn't enough it came with a few impressive commendations on the back, including one from Elizabeth Bowen ("Excellent. This still young writer has what it takes") and the Times Literary Supplement ("A remarkably good and entertaining novel, with realism and good humour").
I started reading it and was immediately swept away by the writing, the characters and the main dilemma. The narrator, Hugo Pemberton, and his wife both want to leave literary lives in London. His wife, Diana, is well on her way to this end, having landed a job as an editor for a magazine and making a great success of it.
Her husband is disturbed by this for several reasons. This is 1950s England, so having a wife with a job is already a bit out of his comfort zone. It takes him further out because they have twin babies who need looking after and Diana's not doing it as much as he feels she should. The discomfort increases because she's making more money than he is. To top it off, his job is managing a sugar plantation in the West Indies for his manipulative older cousin, Justin (whose name might be meant to suggest "unjust").
Right after Hugo and Diana got married and had children, Justin shipped Hugo off by himself to the West Indies. The book opens with Hugo preparing to return home, nervoulsy wondering how his reunion with his wife will be. She wasn't desperate to marry him. He had to ask her several times, in fact. And she hasn't been writing to him very much.
Personal fears and crises are developed and increased very smoothly and without contrivance. Diana has confidence and clarity that Hugo lacks, but she and Hugo are both in danger of being made miserable by Hugo's uncertainty. As in, say, Lucky Jim, we are presented with a young man ensnared by repression, who feels that his life is a trap and has depressingly limited potential.
Note of course that this is a mid-twentieth century novel with many scenes on a West Indian sugar plantation. The West Indians who do the actual work speak in dialect and while the book itself attacks racism, the presentation of non-Caucasian characters is discomfiting.
But as a story and as writing I found Pemberton , Ltd. enthralling and made a note to read more by the same author. He turns out to have been rather an interesting person.
The first line is "There was a diffident tap at the door".