Helen Watson White
The Hiding Places by Catherine Robertson (Vintage, 2015), 350 pp., $36.99
I can understand why Catherine Robertson’s earlier novels were bestsellers – all three topped the sales list in New Zealand. I can also understand why the German publisher who had accepted her first two books decided against publishing the third, The Misplaced Affections of Charlotte Fforbes, because it was too complex and ironic for the chick lit genre in which the others had been categorised.
Robertson’s fourth book will nevertheless appeal, just as the other three did, to readers who relish what a writer friend calls ‘delicious detail’. It is chock-full of the stuff: observations of nature and of British folk of all kinds and classes, their habits and habitations, and chunks of their personal and political, local, national and international history, all ground down to a manageable specificity.
Perhaps The Hiding Places qualifies, indeed, as a historical novel, set as it is in two distinct periods: something like a year (that is, four seasons) in the age of Google; and the time between 1933 and 1947 when Hitler was coming to power, and numbers of 20-year-olds were marshalled from town and country to fight the Nazi machine.
Any story, any history, only matters if we care about the participants, and right from the prologue – written through the perceptions of a dying man – Robertson makes sure that we do. She declares her hand early, narrating this particular tale mainly from the viewpoint of April Turner, a woman young enough to have had a five-year-old son Ben and lost him suddenly, ‘struck by a car outside his school, his small, blond body punted clumsily sideways, like a football kicked by an amateur’.
The writing is assured and insistent, but also surprising and shrewd, often funny or, like that crucial sideways metaphor, ironic. Relentlessly it draws you into the minds, actions and inactions of people who are nearly all eccentric, rather like the odd-bods in Midsomer Murders, but realised – in 350 pages – much more completely. Complex in their psychology, unique in their idiosyncrasies, and mercilessly talkative, these characters can be irritating as well as endearing, but they are undeniably real.
One of the first we meet is solicitor Edward Gill who has conveyed, by a letter across the world to New Zealand, the news that April is the only living descendant able to inherit a large house in the English countryside, belonging for generations to the Potts family. From the point where its classical name is dropped into the story, the turreted (Scottish Baronial) mansion, called Empyrean, becomes a character in it – puzzling, unique, endearing as the rest. Clearly one of The Hiding Places of the book’s title, the house has gathered significance before it even appears, its mystery crystallised in a map enclosed with the news-bearing letter. (Yes, this is something of a detective novel as well as a romance, with misty woods, wild men and dogs, intriguing clues, and not a little obscurity.)
As the Potts family’s solicitor, Edward Gill is merely a go-between, yet because every person we meet is assumed to have a life of their own, he’s been made interesting too – along with Mr Hollander, his predecessor in the job, who ‘met a Bluebell girl in Las Vegas in 1974’ and eloped to Buenos Aires. Even Edward’s car is characterised: a British-made Alvis from the 1960s, ‘ox-blood red, with well-shined wire wheels’, its ‘stacked double headlights and tall oval grille’ giving it a ‘slightly fish-faced look’.
The more important go-between, who is made even more interesting than Edward, is Sunny, Lady Day, who at nearly 90 is the link between the present Empyrean that April comes to meet, probably to sell, and the old house’s richly peopled past. For the chick-lit fans, she’s serving afternoon tea wearing ‘linen palazzo pants in charcoal grey and a tunic-style jumper in fine silver wool, their stylish elegance undiminished by shortbread dust’. Clothes are as good a way as any to characterise a person, like Sunny’s wrists that April notes, when trying to guess her age: ‘blue veins through papery, translucent skin’.
Sunny, however, like all the others gathered together in the story, is probably best characterised by her speech, from childhood, through wartime experience as a land-girl until her memory-filled discourse in the present over shortbread and ‘tepid’ tea. Appearances fade into insignificance as the drama of interwoven families, and what happens to them, unfolds – very gradually, so we get bits of the story, then scenes from the past, then more bits, until a vivid patchwork is complete, each part true to the individual players as well as to the feeling of their time. (Now and then I did feel that Sunny’s outrageous swearing was both early for a child and unlikely for the era she grew up in, but then I wasn’t there either, so I don’t know …)
It is very largely the power of Sunny’s personality, combined with the personalities of all the others she brings to life through her family stories, that persuades April not to return to New Zealand straight after sighting the house she’s inherited. Edward plays a part, and so does the handyman Oran who, while sleeping/living in his van, is being paid to patch up the worst of the leaks and omissions that are starting to turn the house into a ruin.
Living temporarily nearby, April joins Oran in renovating the worst parts, room by room, and is seduced by success as the house returns to itself, begins to assert itself again. She is also seduced by the weather, subtle changes of season, the grounds and dense woods adjoining the property, and by a man who lives alone in them, guarding the wildlife from poachers and his own secrets from most others in the vicinity.
This is the biggest change for her. After her only child was killed, and April blamed herself for allowing that to happen, she separated from Ben’s father and vowed to live in a minimalist fashion, not allowing herself to enjoy any of the things her son would never have. As at a village car-boot sale, so in most things, ‘temptation was effectively bound and gagged’.
In the process of thawing April’s icy resolve, new friends like Oran introduce very ordinary practices she’s given up, like singing and even dancing, eating things not entirely necessary for survival, getting drunk at the pub. We are treated to multiple sensory experiences, or the idea of them (Oran says he ate a peyote button once and ‘saw a giant pink shrew’), as she returns to participation in life at all levels. There are even experiences she wished she hadn’t missed, like going to the interesting old general store that used to operate in nearby Kingsfield, a small market town otherwise ‘posh, pretty and bland’: Edwards had made the shop sound ‘like Arkwright’s in Open All Hours, the kind where you could still buy wooden clothes pegs, flour scooped from a barrel, and those plastic rain bonnets favoured by little old ladies, that fold up into a square the size of a postage stamp.’ Tempting, in a word.
The sights, sounds, smells and specialness of rural life are just as strongly evoked in scenes from times past, which are presented with the same immediacy as the present-time April/Oran scenes in the house and the meetings with the mysterious Jack (and his dog) in the woods.
We join young teens Sunny Northcote and James Potts, for instance, watching a farmers’ protest in the 1930s, ‘vehicle after vehicle coming up the middle of the lane – tractors, cars and horse-drawn wagons’. In that scene we also meet other youngsters who figure centrally in the life of the Big House, Empyrean, such as Lily Blythe the farmer’s daughter, who on that occasion – a cause of agonised jealousy for James – is riding on a big horse behind Rowan, the gamekeeper’s grandson. ‘Up the lane came Rowan, on Ferdinand, Farmer Blythe’s former plough horse. A Clydesdale, seventeen hands and, now that he was retired, so wide in the girth it looked like Rowan was riding a bay-coloured hot-air balloon.’
There are more issues than sexual jealousy in the inter-relationship of these young people from different backgrounds, and therefore of different social status. By 1941 Rowan is turning 18 – the age for National Service Conscription. Although as a farm labourer he would be exempt from the call-up, he decides to become a conscientious objector, and (Sunny relates) ‘despite Reverend Brownlow’s calls for tolerance’ the village turns on him, forcing him to live in the woods rather than give himself up to be held in an internment camp. While the girls, Sunny and Lily, take him food for two whole winters, the boys who are not exempt go off to war. James and Rowan (who’s unable to contemplate a third winter on the run) enlist at about the same time, Rowan meeting his death just a few months later, in 1944.
The plot is cleverly manipulated to ensure we don’t discover too much too soon, the writer drip-feeding us a large body of information over time, none of it redundant to her (which become our) concerns. Above all, she hands over her small gifts in a context and within an atmosphere that make them seem something other than small. I will remember from this novel a very particular place described at many different times, where some things stand out, because they seem familiar by the end. The inside of a tent at the village show, for instance, in the ‘warm, wet weather’ of early summer: ‘hot enough to extract the scents of flowers and greenery, vegetables and earth, and mix them headily with damp clothes and a whiff of lifestock’.
If you like things English, this book is very English, but it’s not only in England that your clothes smell a certain way when you’ve been out in the rain, or that you might bring home after a walk the lingering scent of ‘damp dog’.
HELEN WATSON WHITE has been a theatre critic since 1974. A Dunedin-based writer, she has published articles, short stories and poetry as well as art, opera and book reviews.