I've actually had this book waiting patiently on my shelves for at least the past year, ever since an anonymous commenter on another post mentioned that Lear's second and final novel, Shady Cloister, was set in a girls' school and therefore belonged on my Grownup School Story List. At that point, copies of Shady Cloister were hard to come by, but there was a tantalizing copy of this one going dirt cheap. I see that I even included it in a book shopping post not long after. I can't imagine why it took me so long to finally read it, but better late than never.
|Definitely not sure about the
Betty Smith comparison...
It's a wonderfully odd tale set over the course of about two years—from some time in 1938 until well into the Blitz. The story centers around the rectory in Camberwell in southeast London (thank you, Google), wherein the rector is suffering the unusual aftereffects of a stroke. He seems to have few enough resulting physical limitations, but it has left him hostile, occasionally violent, and—perhaps even worse given his profession—completely averse to his former religious beliefs. (In the novel's opening paragraphs, for example, his daughter Davina notices, "scratched upon the door of the medicine chest, probably with a pair of scissors, the comment: INCENSE IS NONSENSE.") Davina, her Aunt K, and the poor curate Lancaster, who seems most to arouse the rector's ire, all suffer along with him, though the arrival of a new boarder, Rick Watson, whom the rector quite likes, helps to take the heat off of them. Matters are further complicated by 21-year-old Toby, whom the older Davina (in her late thirties) loves passionately but hopelessly, only awaiting the day he will fall for a girl his own age and abandon her, and the officious Aunt Mavis, who arrives for an extended visit a bit later on.
Davina and Rick are the novel's central characters, and one feels they are destined to be together if they can only clear up some sizable misunderstandings and work through their respective issues—Davina her hopeless love for Toby, and Rick his terminal insecurity and class-consciousness, which cause him to lie compulsively in order to hide even the most trivial details of his working-class background:
"I'm supposed to be like my father, except that he's taller. Mother's very petite." In fact, the reverse was true, but it had always seemed to him that there was something faintly disreputable about having a very small father and a tall mother.
A friend of Davina's later sums him up, "He's a cross between the ancient mariner and a spaniel that hasn't been treated nicely." Among other things, he is an aspiring writer, and it is only as time passes and he gains confidence in his creative abilities that his compulsive dishonesty begins to abate.
The rector himself remains largely in the background of the novel, like the rocks that make a river boil and gurgle around them. But he seems to be important to Lear's point here. One might suggest that such a set of side effects as the rector experiences would be unusual in a stroke patient, but that doesn't make the plot line any less entertaining and, at the same time, disturbing and distinctly uncozy.
To put it into psychoanalytic terms, Lear seems to be saying that the stroke has wiped out the rector's regulating superego (his "filter", we might call it these days) and left his primal id in charge. But more importantly for the novel, it seems that he, with his sometimes shocking behavior (right off the bat we learn that he has brutally killed Davina's fox-terrier with a whack from his walking stick), comes to symbolize the darkness that we all must somehow process and place in perspective in order to remain sane and capable of love.
[Davina] began to wonder whether this perhaps was the proper perspective and whether, two hours ago, she had been mistaking farce for tragedy. Perhaps the cumulative effect of living was of more importance than the passion of the moment. … It was only in moments as on the landing this evening when something which overpowered her because it seemed to be the stark truth thrust up its ugly head and she felt like the diver who comes unexpectedly face to face with a monster, unspeakably hideous, and tugs madly at the life-line. In an instant he is hauled up and away and soon there is nothing but the innocent lapping of the surface waters and his own exhaustion to disturb him in retrospect because of what he saw.
In the middle of what is largely a cozy, funny novel with likeable, believable, and interesting characters, such darkness is a bit of a surprise, but I think it might be one of Lear's main points here. If most of the novel is a rollicking romantic comedy and a fairly cheerful portrayal of the leadup to World War II and the early days of the Blitz, we nevertheless here and there get reminders of that sea monster under the surface. There is, for example, a ghoulish story that Rick tells later on, to the rector's evident delight, about two sisters keeping their dead mother in her chair for two years after her death. And there's a very brief but disturbingly vivid description of a child's tragic death in a bombing raid. These instances are short and infrequent, but regular enough that their horror, underlying the cheerful comedy and romance unfolding on the novel's surface, must be intentional and meaningful.
At any rate, I found The Causeway to be great fun and hard to put down. Because the two main characters are such unusual and unlikely lovers, and because they are so well developed and complex, one is by no means sure exactly how (or even if) things will work out for the best. But I never doubted I was in capable hands and that Lear would have a few surprises up her sleeve.
I should have learned my lesson by now about comparing unknown authors to other, more famous writers that lots of folks know and love. But if I foolishly allowed myself to be pressed for comparisons regarding Winifred Lear, I think I'd suggest that she might be the love child of Stella Gibbons and Barbara Pym (with just a twist of Diana Tutton's Guard Your Daughters). Her humor is not riotous by any means, but here are two examples that made me laugh.
I have been working out and doing yoga a bit more again in the hopes of not fitting Rick's grandmother's description as I get older:
Grandma Watson was of immense girth. She had grown like a tree, adding a new ring to her outer man each year, and now, at seventy-nine, had become so cumbersome that on her own admission her legs wouldn't stand it and weren't a bit of use for moving about.
And then, much later when the Blitz is already raging, this little snippet about Aunt Mavis in a crowded shelter made me laugh and definitely evokes Pym's acid sarcasm:
"I would willingly offer you my own bed," said Aunt Mavis, half getting out of it to show what it would look like if she did, "but, as it happens, I seem to have got a nasty bit of cold in my throat."
Clearly, having enjoyed this book so much, I shall now have to move forward with Lear's second (and, sadly, final) novel, the aforementioned Shady Cloister. She also published a much later memoir of her own school days, Down the Rabbit Hole (1975). A big thank you to the anonymous commenter who first put her on my radar!