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The New York Times: "We are in the hands of a master storyteller."

Date: Oct 29 2010

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Abnormal Psychology

Reviewed by Nancy Kline for The New York Times Book Review

“God on the Rocks” is so charming a novel that you don’t want to give away a single one of the many twists of its plot. As its central character might ask: “Why can’t she just — not?” But Jane Gardam must be shared. She’s a find who’s just beginning to be found, at least on our side of the Atlantic (thanks to the novels “Old Filth” and “The Man in the Wooden Hat”), although more than 20 of her books have been published in England and she has won numerous prizes. Now at last comes the American publication of her early novel “God on the Rocks,” which was a finalist for the Booker Prize back in 1978.


The narrative unfolds in 1936 along the coast of northern England, where we encounter 8-year-old Margaret Marsh, luminous as a Renoir, who turns her clear­eyed vision on the madhouse of the world. “It would be better without people,” she remarks to her mother (wishing her newborn brother dead). “If I’d been God I’d have left it at dinosaurs.” To which Mrs. Marsh responds: “Margaret, I don’t think you ought to talk about dinosaurs. You know what Father thinks.”

Shortly after their theological discussion, on an excursion away from her own punishingly fundamentalist (mad)house, Margaret comes upon a literal asylum: a ruined Eden, the once splendid estate of Rosalie Frayling, who now lies dying in the former sitting room of her mansion, estranged from her children, surrounded both by priceless art and by the institutionalized insane to whom she’s willed her property. When Margaret first glimpses the inmates, wandering the spacious grounds in clothes “washed away into pale pinks and blues and lavenders and whites,” they look to her like “our hydrangeas in the back garden where I played hunt the thimble with the lawn-mower screws” and drove her parents crazy. One of the Gardamesque pleasures here, beyond the child’s conflation of madmen and hydrangeas, is that we’ve already heard her father’s version of the hidden-lawn-mower-screws game, which to him exemplifies original sin.

We are in the hands of a master story-teller. Over the course of the novel, Gardam gives us the past and present of her characters’ lives, zooming in and out of their diverse perspectives, moving from Margaret’s uncorrupted eyes to the more freighted vision of the grown-ups around her: Rosalie Frayling’s son and daughter; the daft artist Drinkwater, guileless as a baby, who sits painting on the “burnt gold grass, the great dry lake” of Rosalie’s lawn and understands the world as Margaret does (when he can remember to); an old fellow referred to as “holy Bezeer-­Iremonger, gassed and good,” a mysterious figure who has been “barmy” since the end of the Great War; and, of course, Margaret’s infuriatingly understanding mother (“She had secretly found some Freud to read in the public library” about sibling rivalry) and her father, a bank manager and charismatic weekend preacher, a fervid member of a group known as the Primal Saints. Mr. Marsh sermonizes, among other places, on the slippery rocks along the seashore and burns to save the family’s maid, Lydia, radiant and outrageous in her flamboyant sexuality.

But it’s Lydia who does the saving — happily — of Margaret and her mother and even, perhaps, of Mr. Marsh himself. In Gardam’s generous telling, these characters bring to mind Philo of Alexandria’s advice: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Thoroughly opaque to one another, and often to themselves, Gardam’s characters behave as extravagantly as their Dickensian names would suggest. And yet they’re completely credible because they so resemble our most beloved friends and relations.

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