Miss Hargreaves, Frank Baker. Two silly young men invent a character and then find that they have summoned her up from who knows where and she enters their lives, complete in every detail they have imagined. This is a very odd book which can’t decide whether it’s a horror story or a comedy. Parts of it, especially the conversations between Henry and Norman, are amusing in a Jerome K Jerome-ish way and Norman’s father is a really funny character. I certainly wouldn’t call it ‘hilarious’ as one reviewer has done, mainly because it tries and fails to make supernatural happenings funny (Noel Coward succeeded in Blithe Spirit). At one point ‘Miss Hargreaves’ says to Norman, ‘where would I be without the life you put into me’ and I shuddered. The oddest thing about the book is that the cathedral, the close and the choir all play a very important part in Norman’s life yet he seems to have no genuine Christian belief. How could he, given the way he behaves?
Saplings, Noel Streatfeild. Yet again Noel Streatfeild plundered her own experience and her previous books to make a novel. Saplings is like a terrible inversion of the world she had already created by then in her children’s books. I’m thinking in particular of Curtain Up, my favourite of all her books (yes, even though I think Ballet Shoes is pretty well perfect), which also deals with the effects of the Second World War on a family of middle class children. Both sets of children find themselves adrift and dependent on relatives who are not their parents but with very different results. The Wiltshire children, the ‘saplings’ are parcelled out amongst their relations after their father is killed and their mother lapses into alcoholism. The Forbes children are sent to stay with a maternal grandmother they didn’t know they had after their paternal grandfather dies. They also go through the misery of believing their sailor father to be lost at sea. Where the Wiltshires have Nannie (a reincarnation of Nana, Sir Garnet Wolsey and all), the Forbes have Hannah to provide some continuity in their lives. There's a nice Aunt Lindsey in Curtain Up and a truly horrible one in Saplings. What makes the outcome of one book good and of the other catastrophic is that the Forbes children at least stay together and find something to do: training for the stage. The Wiltshires, with the exception of Kim (who is very like Wolfgang in the later Apple Bough), are rootless, feel unloved and are unhappy and badly behaved as a result. Saplings is often described as ‘bleak’ and so it is but I think it’s the best I’ve read of Streatfeild’s adult novels. I don't on the whole admire her writing but I could hardly put this one down.
More Than You Can Say, Paul Torday. Richard is an ex-army officer damaged by service in Iraq and Afghanistan and the things he’s seen there. As a result he can’t keep a job or his nice girlfriend or any other friends. He’s a mess. Then after a night’s gambling, he takes a daft bet to walk from London to Oxford and gets kidnapped. From there things get weird and dangerous and he finds himself involved in terrorism in mainland Britain. It should be a very sad story but somehow it’s all too detached and failed to make me very sympathetic towards the main character. It’s a short book, which I read quickly and with interest but it lacked the quirkiness of Torday’s earlier books. If you want a thriller, then Robert Goddard (neglected by ‘literary’ reviewers) is so much better.