Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Review: 'Larchfield' by Polly Clark

Put together a poetess, a suffocating small town and a great poet's struggle with his homosexuality and you can have yourself a brilliant novel. However, you could also have a complete trainwreck, as an author tries to deal with too many topics at the same time. Thankfully Polly Clark weaves some beautiful magic in Larchfield, creating a novel that is both exhilarating and painful at the same time. Thanks to Quercus Books and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 23/03/2017
Publisher: Quercus Books
It’s early summer when a young poet, Dora Fielding, moves to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland and her hopes are first challenged. Newly married, pregnant, she’s excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity. She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong. As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether. 
Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Wystan H. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on success and society in London. Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected - rightly - of homosexuality. Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears. 
The need for human connection compels these two vulnerable outsiders to find each other and make a reality of their own that will save them both. Echoing the depths of Possession, the elegance of The Stranger's Child and the ingenuity of Longbourn, Larchfield is a beautiful and haunting novel about heroism - the unusual bravery that allows unusual people to go on living; to transcend banality and suffering with the power of their imagination.
At the beginning of this novel I have to admit something shameful. For an English Literature degree holder, I know woefully little about W.H. Auden. I knew he was gay, I had cried over his poem' Funeral Blues' in Four Weddings and a Funeral and have been meaning to read The Orators for a while. But I had never truly connected to him in the way I have to other poets. So when I found Larchfield I saw it as an opportunity to find my way towards Auden in a different way. And now, thanks to Polly Clark, there is a soft spot for Wystan in my heart, a connection to the sense of isolation and otherness that he felt, that echoes in his work. It's s great feat of Clark that she can bring someone like Auden into her novel without treating him as 'larger than life'. There is clear respect for him, but she doesn't hesitate to make him real, make him personal, flawed and thereby fascinating. She also doesn't sacrifice her own characters, Dora and Kit, for him, giving them as much time and personality throughout Larchfield. I found myself walking away from this novel really wanting to read more Auden, as well as return to Scotland, breathe sea air and connect.

At the centre of Larchfield sits Dora, a young woman, a poet, and new mother, who follows her husband to Helensburgh in the hope to start a new life that has everything. But Helensburgh is a small town, with means there are eyes everywhere, loyalties run deep and Christianity and motherhood are sticks to beat newcomers with. Clark paints the stifling closeness, the burden of expectations and the pressure of having to be, beautifully. The growing weight on Dora's shoulders, as she finds her world shrink to her house, then only to the safe spots where no one can hear her, and finally only to Wystan H. Auden. The pressures on Dora, her desperation to remain creative and productive, her fear of not being a good mother, her anger at her husband and her neighbours, and finally her helplessness at being confronted with the seemingly rigid world around her. All of it comes across very well and it all feels credible.They are recognisable burdens for many women and Clark manages to avoid the pitfalls that unfortunately comes from writing about women, avoiding many of the cliches and making Dora feel like a real woman. 

Clark lets the reader enter her characters' minds without forcing the characters to lay themselves bare. Dora's slow descent into utter unhappiness is so gradual and delicate that, although it doesn't come as a surprise, it still hits hard just how harsh it is. Larchfield is filled with characters that are troubled, that have burdens weighing on them, secrets to keep and fears to hide. Clark, by combining modern day Dora and past Auden, shows the continuing struggle of humans to feel included, to belong. Through Auden Clark is able to address the stigma that haunts homosexuals, both then and now, the crippling feeling of otherness and wrongness that pervades much of their lives. Through Dora Clark shows the pressures of modern day motherhood and womanhood, how nothing is every good enough and how the facade of happiness and perfection only deepens the cracks inside. 

I give this novel...
4 Universes!

I was completely taken in by Larchfield. Dora and Auden are wonderful characters that allow readers to join them on their journeys, even if only for a short while. There is both sadness and beauty to be found in Larchfield, and I think that's exactly how it's supposed to be. I'd recommend this to fans of Literary Fiction and Women's Fiction.

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