16-year-old Ralph Hollis is yearning for a career in the theatre, while his father is furious that he won’t find real work. Their working-class family live with good grace in a cramped and damp house, including Mr and Mrs Hollis, Ralph, 14-year-old Harry, 11-year-old Elsie, Mrs Hollis’ sister Win, and their orphaned cousin Joan.
Ralph was evacuated to a vicarage and picked up an education, refined speech and a love for the theatre. The nearest theatre is in the nearby town of Winford, and Ralph goes there as often as possible, eventually becoming accepted by the theatre company as an unpaid worker, something which enfuriates his father. To bring in some money, he takes a job as a part-time gardener with Mrs Egerton-Smythe, a middle-aged widow with a 15-year-old daughter with whom he becomes friendly.
We see through Ralph’s eyes as he moves between the three parts of his life: braving his father’s displeasure and the difficult conditions in his family home; increasing in his friendship with Mrs Egerton-Smythe and, even more, with her daughter Jessica; and mixing with the theatre people he longs to join. In their different ways, everyone is as supportive as they can be, even his father giving way in the end when he admits to being impressed at how serious Ralph is about things.
I can’t get enough of this book. Writing the synopsis was a trial; usually I can sum a book up in about three sentences without omitting any significant aspects. Here there is so much meat that it’s difficult to know what to miss; yet the style is by no means heavy or elaborate.
The Hollis family seems realistic: they are all together in cramped surroundings, yet they keep going as cheerfully as possible without appearing at all unlikely. They have their spats and yet the fact that they are a family is uppermost. It sounds terribly sentimental, but it isn’t.
Ralph and Jessica’s relationship is delicate and, at first brotherly-sisterly; it later grows into something a little deeper, but by no means precocious, even though at one stage they do sit in either end of a bed to tell each other stories. Ralph’s love for his family, and in particular for his little sister Elsie, is quite touching; watch out for the scenes between the two of them when Ralph arrives home late to find Elsie sharing the bed he and Harry normally share because Joan snores so much.
Just a couple of negative notes: When Ralph’s mother becomes pregnant, Aunt Win suggests she “get up and scrub floors and let nature take its course.” and on another occasion, Joan (and indeed Ralph) get the wrong idea about Mr Hollis’ loving attentions to his wife, although it’s not clear exactly what they did think, and the author doesn’t push the point.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer linving in London and the editor of goodtoread.org.