Author: Susie Boyt
RRP: $39.99 (AUD)
*This book was provided for review by Pages & Pages Booksellers. This has not affected my opinion of it.*
The story opens on Harriet Goodman – tall, awkward, neurotic, lonely and charming – coming to the end of decades of therapy. Estranged from her remaining family, she uses the inheritance from her father’s death to open a nursery school, determining to give ‘her girls’ the best possible start in life.
But beneath her cheerful exterior, Harriet is still fighting demons from her own childhood. Can her new project cleanse her of past pain, or will her ceaseless struggle for the recognition of her family bring down everything she has built?
How I liked it:
This is a beautifully written book, full of nuance, humour, light and shade. In it, Boyt delves into the human psyche – creating a poignant and lifelike portrait of a woman determined to make the best of things in the face of some very great wrongs.
The story is told in third person but we see almost all of the action through Harriet’s eyes and Boyt adds nice little touches to ensure the picture is complete and convincing. The chapters are named neurotically as Harriet herself might name them; things like ‘In The Space of Three Minutes’ and ‘Not In A Million Years’.
The prose is as unexpected and original as Harriet’s own outlook on life. The moment when she comes to the end of the school’s first week, for example – and is faced with the empty house which doubles as her home – is at once poignant, wryly comic and strangely mundane:
Harriet went down to the stationery cupboard in the basement, ran her fingers along shelves neatly sracked with drawing books and writing books, nodded at boxes of pencils and marlkers and sharpeners and rubbers, a tray of scissors, card stock, sticky labels, glue sticks, a ream of sugar paper, squares of felt in rainbow hues. She uncapped a highlighter pen and wrote her initials in the palm of her hand. She inhaled the dry woody odour of order and plenty, thinking, thinking. You cannot let the heart seep out of you every time the weekend comes.
Yet it was a callous hour and it was hard for there not to spread through Harriet a terribly sharp- But she would’t allow it, not for a moment; she was braced for such onsluaghts. She forbade such indulgences. `You Have a Choice’ by Harriet Goodman.
We learn by chapter two that the school is closed after only two years. Throughout the rest of the novel Boyt drops the pieces of the puzzle into place. The result is a subtle page turner. Boyt avoids overt cliffhangers, instead creating a pacy read through clean prose, short chapters and strong, visual scenes.
The action rocks effortlessly between past and present. Far from disorienting the reader, it lends the novel a lyric, Mrs Dalloway-esque quality – heightened by the interior perspective, the blurring of direct and indirect speech, the eking out of a much larger story within a seemingly small one. The psychology lurking within the commonplace never feels laboured or clinical, but rather, adds to Harriet’s humanity.
I’ve given this 4 stars for its originality, the delicacy of the prose, but most of all – for the characterisation. Harriet is more than ink on a page. She left her mark on me as indelibly in the real world as she does on her nursery children in the world of the novel. A very interesting read.
This review first appeared here, on Pages & Pages Booksellers’ reader blog ‘Fan the Pages’.