This is by turns a moving and unsettling tale of an elderly woman, Claire Temple – once a revered literary hostess and author – now facing the onset of dementia against the background of the London blitz. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a rather claustrophobic read at times, as (like Claire herself) the setting of the novel is largely confined to the domestic arena. Certainly the references to the war supply one of the few anchoring links to the outside world: much of the narrative is – persuasively – delivered from Claire’s perspective, albeit interwoven with the thoughts and frustrations of the other characters (the most prominent of these being the unappealing figure of the household cook, Kathleen). One nagging question is whether an account delivered entirely from Claire’s point of view – challenging though this would surely have been – might not have resulted in a more coherent work. However, despite the ambivalence generated by the multiple perspectives on offer, the concluding section – which is given over to Claire’s physician and old friend, Dr Fairfax (a ‘battered old mildly philosophical medico’) – perhaps leaves less room for doubt over where our sympathies ought to lie:
‘He thought of Claire’s sweetness. How moving were some of her remarks: “You are so kind to me, and I know I am giving you so much trouble.” I awoke this morning with the feeling that I had done shocking things, that I had tried to hurt people. If I have offended anybody, will you tell me, and then perhaps I could write a note of apology explaining that I am ill.”’
Kathleen, by comparison, is despatched in markedly less sympathetic terms:
‘(But) once her wits had strayed, no such sweetness, no such occasional self-criticism, would soften the edge of that distrust and that anger with which she would express resentment and suspicion’.
Indeed, having ostensibly invited us to share in Kathleen’s exasperation at Claire’s clearly erratic behaviour (similarly, Claire’s hired companion, the terminally dreary Miss Jones, unfeelingly refers to her charge as ‘a mental’), Hoult pushes us by the end of the novel to recognise the ignorance and emotional coldness which much of the story has served to document, leaving little doubt that this is an individual more sinned against than sinning.
That said, it is worth noting that the war itself does serve as the focus of some of the more entertaining and ironical exchanges which are present within the novel. Claire does reveal herself to be possessed of a distinctive humour and wit, a feature which is at once among the novel’s more appealing and easily overlooked traits. The following exchange with her former secretary, Sara Berkeley, will serve as an example:
‘”…the great thing about this war is that since Dunkirk at any rate all the petty personal things are over. The nation is standing together as it never has done for centuries. Not since the Napoleonic wars. Do you mind if I have some more toast? Thank you.”
“Dear Sara! How interesting you make it all sound. Or if not interesting, so moral. That is another reason why there is something so grim about this war. It is an uplift affair, and uplifting things are generally dull and dowdy. Of course, you belong to an uplift society, weren’t you telling me?”’
Such exchanges serve to lend a quasi-Wildean sense of ironic detachment, surely no small feat given the nature of the underlying subject matter. In thus allowing Claire’s personality (insofar as it remains intact) to come to the fore, Hoult achieve a delicate emotional and intellectual poise which (coupled with the literary allusions which pepper the narrative) confers an additional depth while furthering the reader’s interest in Claire’s plight. Overall, this is a rewarding, albeit at-times challenging novel which approaches a thematic terrain not readily encountered elsewhere.