Sunday, August 5, 2012

Bleakly Hall-Elaine di Rollo

Bleakly Hall-Elaine di Rollo

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 360
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2009

Monty and Ada last saw one another on the frontlines of the First World War, when Monty was a nurse and Ada an ambulance driver who drove like the devil. Now, the two friends have been reunited at crumbling Bleakly Hall, where Monty has been hired to look after the grumpy, gouty guests who have come to take the Hall's curative waters.

 There is a running thread of theatre of the absurd throughout the novel. A decrepit curative water spa at the end of the era of those treatments is a very good setting to place some remaining survivors of the WWs. The hydro provides humor in the clash of old versus "young things" while feeding the melancholic feel of the main characters. And it's the main survivor characters who are the gems of this story. Each one has a different war story and reaction which is very true to life and so avoids the pit of toeing the national feeling. Monty is relentlessly practical-something which served her well in the war but keeps her detached in peace. Ada is handy mechanically, something which likely would not have been developed had she lived in peace but in many ways she is still restricted by her prewar class consciousness. Mae has to deal with her husband's war injury but cannot while he is struggling with this new picture of himself-from daring hero to wheelchair bound survivor. The other Blackwood brother hated the war but can't deny any of the lasting connections left over. Foxley is the quintessential shell-shocked spirit of a soldier with all the strengths (bravery) and weaknesses (women) of that archetype that cannot change to suit peace. There is also the characters of those dead in the war, Foxley/Blackwood brothers' co-soldiers and Monty's Sophia.

There is a bit of a gothic mystery about the book. The flashbacks to the war tell you, in bits and pieces, how the characters became who they are. You want to learn about Sophia and why Monty hates Foxley so much. You want to learn what happened to the Blackwoods and you learn about Belgium and London alike. There's almost two stories going on-that which has passed but you don't know of, and that which is going on, which you can't understand without the past. di Rollo's prose and style of writing handles this masterfully.

Let me get something off my chest, I am not a war novel fan. With the exception of The Things They Carried by O'Brien, I've not read a war novel that I recommend to others...and that one is of short stories. I'm not sure why, perhaps it's because I'm already anti-war and I'm more interested in the aftermath or those left at home or perhaps it's because the modern pointless wars have desensitized me but most war novels make me feel a bit like I'm reading the newspapers. So imagine my surprise that it was the war set pieces in Bleakly Hall that were my favorite parts. The details made those flashbacks seem very viscerally real and the combination of the flashbacks with the present aftermath made it all the better.

My main ambivalence really is that the detail of the hydro itself can really distract and thus somewhat detract from the narrative. I do recommend it to those who read it to enjoy it-this is not really a novel to dissect but rather one to let just affect you.

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