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The Emerald City Book Review: "... the central characters [are] so finely drawn, so real and so human."

Date: Apr 29 2014

Can you believe Harriet the Spy is 50 years old? Yes, she first made her appearance in 1964. In honor of this anniversary here's a recent reread at A Chair, a Fireplace, and a Tea Cozy that goes through the whole book with chapter-by-chapter reactions, ending up with a more considered review. For those of us who grew up with her, it's a fun way to remember and reconsider some of our own experiences with the inimitable Harriet M. Welsch.


Since that's been done quite thoroughly, I want to write instead about another character who could be Harriet's sister in spirit: Jessica Vye in Jane Gardam's A Long Way from Verona (winner of the 1991 Phoenix Award). Verona was published just a few years after Harriet, and though the setting is England during the Second World War rather than the Upper East Side in the early 60s, the rebellious and questioning mood of the time informs both books. Harriet and Jessica are both smart, quirky misfits who want to become writers. They are similar in how they observe and comment on the world around them, from the ridiculous antics of incomprehensible adults to the perplexing behavior of their peers.


For example, here's a passage where Jessica and her friends decide to challenge the local teashop to actually give them some tea (this is during rationing, remember).


There was a thin woman behind the counter in a lavender overall reading a magazine. Now and then she gave a colossal great sniff and turned a page. Florence gave me a push. 'Go on then,' she said. I coughed.


The woman didn't look up. She turned a page and flexed her feet and I coughed again.


'Excuse me,' I said, 'may we have some tea?'


'Eh?' she said.


'Tea,' I said.


'Tea?' she said.


'Yes,' I said. 'Like it says.'


'Well I don't know,' she said. She looked hard at the card. It was pinned to an archway where two long red plush curtains were caught back in the middle at the top of the three steps.


[. . .]


It grew very quiet.


'Look,' said Helen after a while, 'why did you want to come out to tea? I can't see what you wanted.' She has narrow hands and a narrow face, Helen Bell. She is good at playing the piano. On the whole I don't like people who are always playing the piano. They have mean little mouths.


'Well,' I said, 'it's an outing, isn't it? It's nice. It's something to do at the end of term.' [. . .] We'd had this all out before I may say, we'd discussed it for hours. We'd got permission--letters from our mothers and a shilling each and everything. The way they plugged on at things in this school! It takes them ages to get on and do anything. There is a lot of Danish blood on this part of the coast my father says, and the Danes tend to stand about rather. After all, look at Hamlet.


In her first novel, Gardam, who has since produced more than 20 acclaimed works of fiction for children and adults, is already an accomplished and subtle writer. She suggests rather than explaining; for example, when a major trauma hits Jessica, we are left to infer for ourselves what happened, and how she learns and changes throughout the story is hinted at rather than stated outright. This can make reading her story challenging, but this style (which Gardam perfects even more in later books) seems an attempt to portray the way most of us really think and understand the world: not in tidy narrative packages, but in glimpses, fragmentary experiences that we may only later put together and comprehend. Gardam's ability to approach this, without being annoyingly opaque or archly "experimental," is a sign of her genius, in my opinion.


Jessica is older than Harriet, closer to the threshold of adulthood, and the wartime setting, with the constant risk (and occasional fact) of being bombed, obviously brings in more serious aspects. However, both books have a deep emotional impact that comes from the central characters being so finely drawn, so real and so human. As we feel and think and suffer with them, we learn what it means to be true to oneself, and that that is the only thing that really matters. It's an important message for any age.


In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Jane Gardam says of her writing process, "It’s about getting to know a character and loving them, I think." While Harriet has legions of fans already, I hope that many more readers young and old will have the pleasure of getting to know and love Jessica Vye.


Thanks to Europa Editions for their reissue of this and some of Gardam's other early novels; she's a wonderful writer who deserves more attention.