Children playing with Splash Bomb, Toy Gun that shoots water bombs. (Photo by Michael Rougier/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)
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Henry James writes in his preface to What Maisie Knew of his hapless young heroine’s capacity for “shedding a light far beyond any reach of her comprehension”. In her memoir Girl With Dove, Sally Bayley is also interested in the potential of limited comprehension — not to shed light on adult inadequacies, but to illuminate the experience of the uncomprehending child. Shot through with deliciously quirky humour, Girl With Dove is a testament to innocence, resilience and the protective power of the imagination.

The childhood in question is the author’s own. Raised with an assortment of siblings and cousins in a large ramshackle house in a small town on the Sussex coast, Bayley, author of The Private Life of the Diary and a lecturer in English at Oxford University, grew up in a world of enchanted chaos. The household subsists on pilchards and cheese on toast. Green mould lines the bath tub. None of the adults go out to work. Singing strangers gather in the front room and pray for Zion. Sometimes the children attend school, sometimes not. Men make brief appearances, but never stay for long. At one point her father turns up. After a short, hilariously disastrous supper in a local hotel, he is swiftly banished to Saudi Arabia.

As with all enchanted worlds, darkness lurks at the fringes, behind curtains and closed doors. There are murders and witches, goblins and ghosts. Black rocks sometimes fall from people’s mouths instead of words. One morning a dead body is discovered on the living room floor. Upstairs on the third floor is a woman called Mrs Robinson, but no one has ever seen her. Bayley’s childhood is full of such mysteries, chief among them the disappearance of her baby brother David from his pram beneath the roses.

A triad of powerful women rule over this unruly world: grandmother Maze, mother Ange and the terrifying Aunt Di. Bayley conjures their personalities and aphoristic wisdom with sharp wit and precision. “Net curtains cover a multitude of sins,” says her mother. “You can get away with murder if you hang your curtains well.” Denis Thatcher is deemed “as reliable as sliced white bread”. “Too much powder and not enough sense,” is Maze’s verdict on Wallis Simpson. “Powder should stay on babies’ bottoms!”

Reading provides a refuge from the baffling complexities of this childhood. By the age of 11, Bayley has read all of Agatha Christie and memorised great swathes of Jane Eyre. The fictional figures populating her imagination blur seamlessly with the adults who appear and disappear so mysteriously in real life. Miss Marple, her first best friend and guide, teaches her that “peculiar things happen in English villages all the time” and that “women waft about in their nighties when things are going wrong”.

From Miss Marple she also learns that a good detective needs an excellent memory and the job of a detective is to explain things. “Let me explain . . .” the young Bayley frequently says, but memories and explanations prove elusive. It is Jane Eyre who emboldens her to look deeper into the perplexing non-sequiturs of her childhood world. “After I found Jane Eyre, nothing was the same again,” she writes. “She was always there, always looking and hearing the things no one else dared.”

Bayley writes superbly from a child’s eye view in a style that mimics the speech patterns of a child, but also skewers complex thoughts and feelings. Fragmented recollections, overheard snatches of conversation, “small scraps, words floating through windows on a hazy summer day”, all form a loose-linked mosaic from which Bayley’s younger self valiantly attempts to form a coherent narrative. She applies to her own life what she had learned from reading, that “all stories have back­stories, at least all stories worth knowing about, and all readers want to pry into those unlit spaces.”

This is a story about the child’s need to make sense of chaos and the redemptive power of stories to bestow meaning. For Bayley, the chaos eventually proves too dangerous and she gets herself taken into care. The passages of the book describing this defiant act of self-preservation are literally spine-tingling. For once, her literary companions fall silent, but you sense their presence providing courage and inspiration. “Reading is a strong torch shining through the dark,” Bayley writes, a torch that also shows her the way out of the darkness. The word “mesmerising” is frequently applied to memoirs, but seldom as deservedly as in the case of Girl With Dove, a work suffused with psychological depth, literary inventiveness and subtle brilliance.

Girl With Dove: A Life Built By Books, by Sally Bayley, William Collins £14.99, 288 pages

Rebecca Abrams is the author of ‘Touching Distance’ (Picador)

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