November 9, 2012 7:26 pm

Bittersweet redemption

An idealistic teacher struggles with the legacy of her childhood, brittle dreams and the shifting contours of fear
A little girl paints at an easel in the classroom during an art lesson.©Mary Evans

The Small Hours, by Susie Boyt, Virago, RRP£14.99, 224 pages

 

Harriet Mansfield, the central character in Susie Boyt’s new novel, The Small Hours, dreams of running the kind of nursery school I wanted for my children when they were little: a sort of ludic utopia in which they would spend their days making mud pies and fairy cakes, blissfully buffered from the world, whilst also effortlessly acquiring the skills they needed to cope with the world. Harriet is the headmistress I fantasised about. She wants to make “a sort of paradise for the children”, to give them “a really really joyful and idyllic start that will set them up for life”.

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If all this is making you uneasy, it’s surely intended to. That sly repetition of “really”, for instance, and the overlong phrase in which it sits. Harriet’s way of expressing herself, as much as what she’s expressing, conveys a character given to excess, accustomed to overload. We don’t yet know why, but the clues are there: she is confiding her vision of a childhood Eden not to a friend or relative but the psychotherapist she’s been seeing for the past seven years, the person who has “resuscitated and reframed” her and “loved her more than anyone else”. Boyt builds up the Biblical allusions very lightly, but leaves us in no doubt: some dark, primordial chaos predates this dream of earthly paradise, and snakes, for sure, lie ahead.

We don’t have long to wait. By the end of chapter two we’ve been told that Harriet’s dream school became reality briefly but ended in failure. The narrative shifts back and forwards in time, from Harriet’s own childhood and adolescence to a maternity ward 25 years in the future where two of her pupils have unexpectedly met again. It’s a technique that fits well with Harriet’s own fragile location in the present.

As the events leading to the school’s closure are gradually revealed, we meet Lucy, the little girl being raised by a nanny who is barely out of childhood herself and way out of her depth; Sophie, the schizophrenic aunt of another child at the school; Colin, the local dropout with a penchant for The Iliad. All are more credible and appealing as human beings than the coiffed and well-pressed parents who drop and collect their children at Harriet’s door each day.

Harriet herself stands in a venerable line of fictional teachers. She is reminiscent of Lucy Snowe, Charlotte Bronte’s heroine in Villette (1853),in her exquisite sensitivity and self-deprecation, but contains more than a hint of Muriel Spark’s Miss Jean Brodie in her magisterial handling of those individuals foolish enough to cross her path. Yet as Harriet tries, and to a certain extent succeeds, in being a substitute mother to the girls at her school, the devastating legacy of her own mother’s actions, past and present, becomes increasingly evident.

As the great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, it is perhaps not surprising that Boyt should be drawn to exploring the childhood roots of adult suffering, with parents having a lot to answer for. Absent or falsely idealised fathers are a recurring feature in her novels. Only Human (2004) also wheeled around a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. What is surprising and impressive is how Boyt – who is also a Financial Times columnist – manages to steer entirely clear of psycho-jargon while boldly going into precisely the territory it gives rise to. Lacan gets a brief mention in The Small Hours, as does Klein, but that’s about it.

This is Boyt’s fifth novel, and her darkest to date. There are no cataclysmic encounters, no epiphanies, no happy endings. But she is a compassionate chronicler of the human heart and there’s a tenderness at the heart of this novel that redeems it from bleakness. The real pleasure of The Small Hours lies in the care and precision with which Boyt leads us into Harriet’s internal world, the depth and brittleness of her hopes and dreams, the shifting contours of her fears and fearlessness.

This is a world that is grounded in the closely observed particular – the “little dotted Swiss curtains”, the “green and violet artichokes nestled in squares of blue tissue”, “the festive cherry-checked smocks”; but where everything has hidden meaning and is a metaphor for something else. Harriet’s courageous engagement with the stream of life both buoys her and seems poised to overwhelm her.

The point of this novel is not whether your dreams succeed or fail, but whether you’re still willing to risk having dreams at all. In Harriet Mansfield, Boyt has drawn a character whose moral and emotional courage is both convincing and heartbreaking.

Rebecca Abrams’ latest novel is ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)

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