Thursday, June 18, 2020

A cry of joy would go through this house like a sword: ROSALIND BRACKENBURY, A Day to Remember to Forget (1971)

Electricity in all the corners, the walls thin as rice paper. Nobody could ever be so intrepid as to make love in this house, with its thin, listening walls, its lights flashing on at the top of the stairs, its unhappy people lying awake. A cry of joy would go through this house like a sword.

Regular readers will already know that I almost never accept review copies from publishers. I just do not seem to be capable of reading according to a schedule, and when I try to I almost always fail. This is why I don't participate in blog events related to a specific author, even one I love like Margery Sharp, for example, because knowing that I'm supposed to read a Margery Sharp book and write about it for a certain day (even if that day is six months in the future) will almost certainly render me completely uninterested in reading Margery Sharp for the duration of the six months. Some sort of peculiar perversity, no doubt, and likewise a review copy on my TBR shelves begins to glare accusingly at me from the moment of its arrival until I feel so hostile towards it that I'd like to throw it out the window.

However (thank heavens there's a however, right?), when Michael Walmer emailed a while back about this title, by a British woman writer I had never heard of—though she has been quite prolific and released her latest novel, Without Her, just last year—and noted that the introduction was by none other than Margaret Drabble, who is just about my favorite living author, my resistance was breached. Happily, too, Michael is understanding about the fact that I always get round to reviewing his books two or three months after they're first released!

And indeed, I'm very glad I did accept this book, because although A Day to Remember to Forget is rather different from many of the books I write about here, it proved absolutely extraordinary and lovely, and it should not have been the case that I had never heard of Brackenbury!

The novel begins with Lucy and Philip, a rather free-spirited, slightly hippy-ish young couple who have just decided to buy a house in Norfolk. Their hopes and tensions around this decision are beautifully delineated. (It's funny how some authors can make their characters' inner thoughts and feelings so clear to the reader without any feeling of having to work to interpret or understand—we're simply there inside their heads.) They are supposed to proceed directly to Philip's parents' home, where his family is celebrating his mother's birthday this weekend, but instead they hitchhike to a nearby hotel to spend the night, giving us a clear inkling of their ambivalence.

When they do arrive, all sorts of familial tensions begin to work their way explosively to the surface, sucking in Philip's parents, brother and sister-in-law as well as a lonely elderly neighbor. Tensions between the parents, tensions with the brother (who has always been the responsible one but not the favorite), tensions regarding the neighbor and the tragic death of her husband many years before—it's a bit like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? crossed with, well, Virginia Woolf herself!

It's often rather harrowing, and if it strikes home for you, as it did me, then it's a somewhat difficult read at times, but it's also terribly striking and perceptive, with these glimpses into the minds of various characters that so precisely sum up how grievances and insecurities and slights do take root and grow in all sorts of unexpected and unpredictable ways.  I kept having to stop to mull them over and say, "Yes, that's exactly how that happens. I had never thought of that before." And the writing is beautiful and often reminiscent of Margaret Drabble herself, so those of you who love Drabble as I do should take note. Like Drabble, too, Brackenbury understands all of her characters, so while we think in one passage, "Oh, what an impossible woman!", a few pages on we find ourselves touched by the pain that very impossible woman has been through.

Apart from the quotation at the beginning of this post, which really sums up this dysfunctional home, here are two more to demonstrate. First, Philip's rather impossible mother herself, in the midst of an argument with her husband:

She spoke the words just as they occurred to her, not knowing whether or not they were true. What did it matter what one's weapons were, as long as one defended oneself? When he picked his way so pedantically, like a judge, like a prosecutor, forcing her to give evidence, remember dates, produce an alibi and recognise Exhibit A. He terrified her, and she ran backwards, lashing out. The only way was to hurt him, until he stopped. It was like not knowing if there was enough for dinner in the fridge, like people arriving, like being asked a question in class and not knowing the answer. When the masked men came to the door and banged upon it, they would want an answer, or they would push past her and invade the house.

How often do we argue in just such a way? Saying what will work as a weapon in the moment, regardless of its truth. It seems obvious having read the passage, but not every author realizes such things.

And then, just a striking way of thinking captured in this scene with young Lucy:

She stood still on the edge of the orchard, poised for a moment, staring at the house next door which now gave back no sign of life nor habitation, and wondered what it was like to live there, to peer round a curtain and watch a girl in pink shirt and blue jeans cross a garden alone, and disappear into a small shed among nettles. This was such a familiar sensation, this knowledge, sensuously, of what it was to be the other person. As a child, she had felt it overwhelm her, when she held an animal, a cat perhaps, clutched to her and felt that she, Lucy, was the cat feeling herself held by herself, Lucy, who was the girl.

I'm looking forward to exploring more of Brackenbury's work, and I'm so grateful to Michael Walmer both for sending me a copy and for making this wonderful rediscovery of her work.


  1. Wow, not an author I'd heard of, either. When you say harrowing, do you mean emotionally or Horrible Events?

    1. Emotionally for the most part, Liz, though there is a scene which is tragic, but not gratuitous in a Tarantino sense! I think you would appreciate this one Liz!

  2. Really glad you got so much from this Scott, and couldn't agree more that she's an amazing writer. I shall slowly republish all of Brackenbury's out of print works - I hope you'll dare their accusing stares from your shelf and read them too...


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