All the days of her life

The Small Hours

Susie Boyt
Virago £14.99
Review: Liam Heylin

Harriet Mansfield. It is such a literary name for the central character of this wonderful little novel. Harriet Mansfield should become one of the great characters of literature.

Our first impression is of a well-to-do young woman who doesn’t fit in and who is not loved enough, but despite her fragility the book is never cheaply sentimental. Everywhere the character goes, and everywhere the story goes, is earned by the author. No cheap shots here.

A satisfying aspect of the book is the economy with which certain key matters are drip-fed at just the right moments into the narrative.

We know early on that Harriet has had a dismal childhood in a loveless family. Her mother is a cold fish. As Harriet builds herself up to saying something of tremendous personal significance to her mother, she anticipates being corrected on her grammar. Harriet’s father is dead and her brother, Colin, is cruelly dismissive.

The book centres on the doings at a large house that Harriet buys to set up an idyllic school for young girls. She is determined this school will provide them with the security and joy denied her.

If she sounds a bit flaky, she isn’t; she’s highly intelligent and infectiously hopeful and idealistic. The real emotional see-saw of the book is her heroic idealism in the face of her horribly neglected life.

Refreshingly, this is not a woman looking for the love of a good man to save the day. All she wants, in the end, is the love of her own mother and brother. Her abandonment is heartbreaking: “They thought, her family, that they had quietly walked away, and with dignity, but really they could not have attacked her more if they had set at her with swords. The weight of neglect, of distaste, of disinclination even, it stole the life out of her.”

Her emotional freight is so convincingly described, and she is for the most part so able, so cheerfully determined, that when she undertakes something or has to take someone on, you might feel like cheering for her, this awkward, beautiful, damaged person.

When she goes to visit her mother — a woman who has wreaked havoc in Harriet’s life and then stood aside — there is no malice from the daughter. She approaches with carefully chosen words and decides that it is up to herself to bring enough love for both of them to the encounter.

Boyt is a daughter of Lucien Freud and great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud. In The Small Hours, she has written an exceptionally good novel, too deeply funny to ever be maudlin. In Harriet Mansfield, she has given us a great characterisation, wounded by so many slings and arrows, but you can’t keep a good thing down.

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