In the recent edition I read, a preface by Philip Pullman points out that this is a book about time. He was referring to Clare’s awareness of the differences between her own environment and that of her great-aunts and great-grandfather, and of the contrast between the time-aware cultures of the West and the timelessness of the tribal way of life in New Guinea. Interestingly, from the perspective of 21st-century readers of a book written just before the last quarter of the 20th century, there is another temporal contrast: between Clare’s world and our own. It may be because I was growing up in the 1970s but I find books set and written in that time especially interesting. (In passing, these same books I find fascinating now are in some cases the very ones I found boring and opaque at school, something I keep having to remind myself when reviewing from the perspective of a young reader). The 1970s strikes me as an era when the postwar “Age of (Sexual) Enlightenment” was making its effects felt but only just.
In this book, Clare is a relatively demure schoolgirl, but she’s ready to discuss casually and fairly candidly the various talks they’ve received at school about growing-up. (“She was really talking about sex.”) This is not really the point of the book, of course, simply an indication of the contemporary setting. Howevever since the story is about contrasting societies, it does draw attention to some of the cultural tensions emerging at the time: the all-while, all-female household in Norham Gardens, for example, takes in a young, black, male lodger. In addition, there are the contrasts between Clare’s way of life – a young teenager living with her elderly aunts in a big house in Oxford – and that of her friends and acquaintainces. Interestingly Liz, Clare’s contemporary, finds her slightly offbeat family setting and way of life interesting and appealing. And then there are the contrasts between the cultures of the late 19th century her explorer ancestors lived in and those of the Polynesian tribes they encountered. All this results in a many-layered work whose issues are perennial but which is also set in a concrete time and place, and enables us to look a little into the way of life from which the author was writing.
Aunts Susan and Anne are intelligent and knowledgeable, but in the way of old people increasingly incapable of dealing with everyday matters. In their younger days they were academics and campaigners and members of committees and reviewers and teachers and everything a woman could reasonably be in that period while pushing those boundaries as well. Now, though, prone to the weaknesses of old age and with a tendency to live in the past, they can hardly manage the household in Norham Gardens. Clare and the daily housekeeper Mrs Hedge must cope with practical matters, especially money. In its own way this story strikes a blow for female independence in its many forms: the aunts never married and remain intelligent and affectionate; Mrs Hedge and Clare’s cousin are married women with children yet are capable and fulfilled; the younger women including Clare, Liz and Maureen the lodger can look to the older generations for an indication of what path to choose.
Clare herself, a teenager who enjoys the same sort of things her modern contemporaries do, is nevertheless level-headed, capable and responsible. (In an amusing moment, we hear Clare’s down-to-earth thoughts at the lengths people go to to avoid referring to her parents’ death. Although she herself shies away from thinking about the possibility of her elderly aunts dying.) So clear is the maturity which her role has brought her that her parents’ cousin changes her mind about her own daughter’s future and encourages her to take a more responsible attitude. To help make ends meet, at Clare and Mrs Hedge’s suggestion the aunts agree to take in a young woman lodger. Later on, Clare meets an African student, a young man, at the University Museum and persaudes them to let him lodge there too. Of all the characters Maureen the lodger and John the student are most representative of their 1970s milieu. Maureen retains her parents’ caution about “not being the wrong kind of girl” and her own reticence about this outlandish man in the house, but by the end of the story is happily overcoming any scruples she may have.
In the midst of this domestic mini-saga, Clare finds the tribal tamburan her great-grandfather brought back from New Guinea and finds herself drawn in her dreams to the tribe who made it, witnessing the change in their previously unchanging way of life. At the one level, you have the faintly spooky dreamscapes where Clare’s dreams resonate in some unspecified way with the history of the tamburan. It’s never made clear if this is a supernatural effect, or merely that Clare is suffering from some kind of stress and dredges images from her subconscious which she has come across in family diaries and papers. Nor does it matter: the story isn’t one of an haunted tribal relic calling out to be returned home – although the question is raised of the validity of acquiring and removing such objects, no matter how honestly. Rather, we have the different layers of culture and times viewed through Clare’s eyes. Clare may have had a slightly unconventional upbringing and that a quarter of a century ago, but her feelings and aspirations are not so very different from many young teenagers nowadays.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. This review first appeared on his website, goodtoread.org.