What a strange little nugget of a novel this is. It reads as it might feel to accidentally come upon something long buried in a muddy field, untouched for aeons. Which, I suppose, being a reissued Booker shortlister from 1973 (one that, in turn, explores the passing of time and nostalgia as its dominant themes), isn’t so surprising. Although it is surprising that Virago is republishing it now.
Not that this is a bad book – on the contrary, if its original publication had been in 1923 rather than 1973, it might well have won the Booker. But it’s certainly a relic, by design, yet also, I think, not. It’s filled with startlingly unpopular ideas: the characters blithely express views that would quickly send trolls into a frothy, giddy frenzy. Perhaps Virago is trying to tap into the market of those not interested in novels shaped by today’s omphaloskeptic politics, but who’re also too intelligent for the latest Mr Osman or Reverend Coles.
Here, we’re thrust into familiar literary territory, that of the upper-middle-classes, living in a chocolate-box village in southern England somewhere. The story follows Hero, a bookshop owner and antique book restorer who’s interested only in an unapologetically idealised past. She falls for the wife of the man with whom she’s having an affair. This obsession is then superseded towards the book’s close by one with the same man’s mother. This menage a quatre unfolds incomprehensibly politely, with much philosophising, some drinking, and no screaming rages whatsoever.
Otherwise, the novel veers peripatetically through local events: a tree is saved, a car crashes, disease arrives and a symposium on the Rococo style is reluctantly held. The inclusion of this latter appears tongue-in-cheek, as with so much Mavor touches on. In fact, the whole endeavour starts to feel uncannily like a mirroring meta-novel, albeit a cracked one; The French Lieutenant’s Woman, but weirder. A creeping, mad logic permeates the text, one that can only be appreciated when considered as a whole. By the end, the numerous allusions to Greek tragedy have revealed themselves as signposts rather than snobbery (hence the name “Hero”).
I liked all this, but then, I’d like any book that could be described as a mix between Beatrix Potter, JG Ballard and Sophocles. It’s certainly different.