Alan's Reviews > After Such Kindness

After Such Kindness by Gaynor Arnold
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's review
Jul 20, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: novels, my-writer-s-group, read-in-2012
Read from July 06 to 17, 2012

Gaynor's new book comes out next week (July 5th) - I have read parts of it at the writers' group I belong to - I'm looking forward to reading the whole thing.

Bought it last night at the launch at the Ikon, lovely do, lots there. A nice hardback, started reading it on the train coming back but was a bit drunk (obviously went on to a canalside pub). Start again today..

..of course I'm hopelessly biased but this was just superb. In the middle I wondered if it was going to flag a little because it centred around the same incident from different points of view, but it gripped tightly after that and you realised it was all necessary. Proper review forthcoming...

here it is ( a bit muddled I think, I might come back and tidy up)..

I’m so glad that Gaynor didn’t bring the whole thing to the group, as it would have spoiled the surprise of the ending, which is quite shocking and poignant. Once again, following Girl in a Blue Dress (which portrayed a fictional version of Dickens’ wife), Arnold has used a 19th century literary figure as a basis for an exploration of the mores and morals of the period with a 20th/21st century slant. . As the author pointed out at the launch if someone today was taking photographs of young girls (11/12) naked or with few clothes, and inveigled himself into the family of a particular girl so that he could spend as much time as possible with her we would be very suspicious. Not so in the case of Charles Dodgson – pseudonym: Lewis Carroll – and his relationship with the real life Alice. It was a different world.

When Gaynor (seems daft to call her Arnold in this context) brought the first passage along, the Nabokovian frisson caused by ‘I do not know if I will deserve her, my Daisy, my Day’s Eye, my meadow flower’ went through the group. But Gaynor had not read Lolita then, and didn’t do so until after she’d finished ASK. The rest of the novel – although covering some of the same territory – is quite different in tone and structure.

ASK is told from four different pov’s: Daisy/Margarite (the Alice figure as child and adult), both her parents Charles and Evelina Baxter, and John Jameson (the Dodgson/Carrol figure). There is also a coda from yet another point of view. You could be forgiven in assuming that the book may be a mite confusing. However this is not the case, everything is crystal clear. This is down to Arnold’s tight control and lucidity; ironic in a book about giving way to madness and illogic.

However – as in her earlier book - this is no straightforward re-telling or fictionalising of actual events. I remember some people being a bit frustrated that she didn’t use real names in the Dickens book (eg my wife) but Arnold uses the situation to take off into her own novel, and it becomes remote from its source, and real names might have been too restrictive. This, like Girl in a Blue Dress, becomes its own thing: a novel that explores the role of women In Victorian society at large as well as the story of a particular few. Although it stays within the bounds of the possible, using the language and sensibilities of the era, it allows us to look back in hindsight to see the hypocrisies and stupidities of the time (eg blaming overheated imaginations for sexual problems). On the other hand it reflects on our own times when taking delight in the company of children is viewed with cynicism. It is a very strong, unflinching work. Not that it isn’t also full of delights, as a book about the creation of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (here called Daisy’s Daydream) should be. The following may give an idea of the delights in store (and the book is full of them):

Talking of the heat Jameson says ‘If you still possessed your full head of hair, I daresay you would be quite melting away by now, and I should have had to catch you in my collapsible tumbler and take you home to your papa and mama with a label saying: Daisy Baxter in Liquid Form. I daresay they would have been terribly incommoded to have their child contained in a cup. They would have had to put you high up on the mantelpiece so as not to let any dog or cat lap you up for a drink of water.’
‘But wouldn’t I have become a solid girl again when I grew colder?’ she asked in that earnest way of hers.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘The laws of nature dictate you should, but sometimes the laws of nature surprise us by doing something perfectly contradictory, so they are not, on the whole, to be trusted.’

Or this in a letter inviting her for tea:
‘..seems to produce jam tarts at the drop of a hat. Take care to bring your hat, therefore, or you may end up hungry.’

The darker stuff is balanced by this interplay between the young and old and the rigidity of custom and the freedom of the imagination. A terrific book, with many memorable moments. One of my favourites is when Daisy wakes from a dream on the lawn to find herself four years older, with a bosom and arms and legs that have grown, so like Alice but with such dark and clever undertones.

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