I swithered when I was first offered this book for review. It looked like it might be sentimental slush. It has one of those tug-at-the-heart-strings covers, a child, lagging behind, staring forlornly back as she heads off into the unknown with her fellow wartime evacuees. It felt contrived. It looked Photoshopped. I was looking for reasons not to like it but I'll come back to the cover later.
I don’t hate love stories; I've never gone out of my way to read one. In fact I had a quick scan of my bookshelves before I began writing this and I couldn't see a single love story there. Not a one.
When I replied I said I'd read the book if it was written from the child's perspective. I was told it was and the book duly arrived a few days later. The girl is certainly a key character but there are large chunks of the book without her. It was also written in the third person – I had hoped for a first person narrative (I've read a few books written from a child's perspective and I've liked them all) – but I'd got the book now, I might as well read the damn thing.
The Very Thought of You is not a love story. It is a story about love. There is a difference. Regarding this the author says:
I began with some shadowy but idealised lovers, and the entire story was so empty and untrue that the exercise felt mechanical. I had to excavate more deeply. Painfully and slowly, I came up with the cast of The Very Thought of You – various emotional cripples and misfits, who struggle to find connections with each other.
Yes, there is a love story at the centre of the book but it is not the novel's only love story. The book deals with two things: loves (of various kinds) and distances (for different reasons). There is a simple short paragraph towards the end of the book that follows a quote from Wordsworth's ode 'Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood' that makes what I think is a key point:
…But there's a tree – of many, one –
A single field which I have looked upon,
Both of them speak of something that is gone…
Perhaps life was one long story of separation, just as Wordsworth had said. From people, from places, from the past you could never quite reach even as you lived it.
There are a variety of loves described in the book: the love between parents and child, between husband and wife, the love of a teacher, for a lover, even the love of a housekeeper for her employer but most importantly, love from a distance. There is no unrequited love that I can think of although the love that is returned is not always what is expected or needed.
The story revolves around the evacuation of children from London to the relative safety of the countryside at the onset of World War II. We follow Anna Sands, an eight year-old, as she leaves her mother, Roberta, to go they know not where. All Anna hopes is that her final destination will be beside the sea:
"Is Leicester at the sea?" she asked a woman with a list of names.
"No, dear, nowhere near the sea."
That settled it. Anna did not want to stop here. She joined the queue for a new train, even through nobody seemed to know where they were going.
She made for a window seat.
"When do we get to the sea?" she asked a patrolling teacher. His eyes were quizzical.
"You mustn't be too disappointed if you don't end up at the seaside," he said. "Anyway, it's too cold for bathing at this time of year." Anna asked no more, but sensed with a sickening heart that she was on the wrong train.
As luck would have it Anna, along with more than eighty other evacuees, is swooped up by the elegant Elizabeth Ashton and bused to her husband's ancestral home, Ashton House.
She is there for a number of years but returns home before the war ends. Despite the fact she'll probably never get to use the bathing costume her mother bought her the day before her departure, Anna realises that she has won a watch ending up here. She writes to her mother:
Dear Mummy, my train went to Ashton Park in Yorkshire. It is huge. We play in the gardens a lot.
The story then suddenly shifts to Warsaw and to Clifford Norton and his wife 'Peter' (after Peter Pan). This was unexpected. But they don't stay in Poland very long. In fact in the next few pages we see them pack up and return to the "strange, corpse-like" city that London has become without the sound of children. The Nortons, who we learn are friends of the Ashtons, appear at the periphery of the main story and are a clever writerly device providing an external eye on the war because they get to go where the Ashtons can't. This could have been done using news reports but it's far more interesting to have a human perspective on things. In the acknowledgements at the end of the book we learn that these were a real life couple; Sir Clifford, as he ended up, was a cousin of the author and it was reading "his letters and dispatches from the Warsaw embassy" that piqued her interest in this period in history.
What I did begin to feel very early into my reading of this book was that it read like a novelisation rather than an original work. The reason I suspect is that Rosie Alison spent years working in television as a director and has learned how to structure a story in a particularly televisual way. (Notice in the quote above how she refers to the book's characters as its "cast".) This is not a criticism, merely an observation. I have watched a lot of TV over the years and it is no bad way to learn a certain kind of storytelling.
While staying at Ashton House young Anna gains some unexpected insight into the relationship between her hosts. The first happens one night when, having wet her bed, she is sneaking down to the laundry room for clean sheets so she won't be embarrassed in the morning. As she steals down the corridor she notices that the Ashton's bedroom door is ajar:
[S]he waited with dread to hear the clack-clack of Mrs Ashton's heels walking towards her. Blood pounded in her eats as she crouched there, still clutching the damp sheet.
No footsteps came near her, but there were sounds, and Anna strained to listen. She could hear an agitated voice – Mrs Ashton, she thought – from the next room, It must be the middle of the night. Didn't they know their door was open?
Though she could only catch snatches of what was being said, she recognised a desperation which frightened her. Mrs Ashton was swearing and choking on foul words at her husband. Violent language she had never heard before. Guttural sounds which chilled her.
She crept away as silently as she could.
Of course the book's omniscient narrator hangs around so we get to find out that what Elizabeth is so angry about is that her period had just arrived, ergo she is not pregnant – yet again.
Looking to the past our narrator informs us that the Ashtons were once pretty much the perfect couple until, during a holiday to Bruges in the summer of 1931, Thomas – Mr Ashton – takes ill:
By the evening, his throat was sorely inflamed, and in the early hours of the morning he lay semi-delirious with fever. A doctor was called to their hotel room, and his expression soon became grave.
"It is polio," he told Elizabeth. "We have an epidemic of it at the moment. You must not drink the water."
He is taken to hospital where he needs a tracheotomy to help him breathe but it is only his wife's insistence and finally intervention that he gets to return to England. Ultimately that saves his life. He recovers but several months in an iron lung take their inevitable toll on him. His legs begin to waste away and despite all his physiotherapist's efforts he winds up wheelchair bound.
Obviously this puts some strain on their marriage and the answer they come up with, like many couples whose marriages are heading towards the rocks, is to have a child to serve as an emotional bridge between them. But, as you've just read, it isn't happening.
In the midst of all this emotional turmoil Alison shifts our attention to Rosie, Anna's mum, who is also childless – in a metaphorical sense at least. She finds a job at the BBC and through that develops a circle of friends who help bring her out of herself. In time she even acquires a young lover.
Elizabeth too soon finds comfort in the arms of other men. At first they are nameless and faceless. She makes trips to London and comes back a different woman. Her husband is not a stupid man and realises what is going on but decides not to confront her. He throws himself into his teaching and his studies.
In time, however, he finds himself distracted by one of the young teachers, but being your typical stiff-upper-lipped English chappie he keeps those feelings to himself. Our friendly omniscient narrator reveals to us that his feelings are in fact reciprocated. Very much so. The girl, unable to cope with her feelings, decides to leave but right before she does she hands him a letter revealing the depths of her feelings for him. But then she's gone.
You may think by revealing what I have in the last couple of paragraphs I've spoiled the story for you but really these events are just the first tentative strokes. Two more people come into the Ashton's lives that ignite real passion and true love. And, of course, everything ends tragically. In the meantime Anna has to cope with a tragedy of her own which results in another significant encounter with the Ashtons, one that affects the rest of her life.
And then, with 60 pages to go, Anna is plucked from Ashton House and drawn back into life in war torn London. Surely the story had finished. What more needed to be said that required 60 pages? Maybe three or four to tidy things up. But no. We get to see the rest of Anna's life.
The book's prologue ends, a little unexpectedly, with this paragraph:
There is one tree which particularly draws the eye, a glorious ruddy copper beech which stands alone on a small lawn by the rose garden. It was on a bench under this tree that the duty staff recently found an elderly woman sitting alone after closing hours, apparently enjoying the view, On closer inspection she was found to be serenely dead, her fingers locked around a faded love letter.
It's no surprise to learn this is Anna who is drawn back to the house as an old woman. But this is not her only visit as an adult. There is one in the sixties where, as a grownup now, she can talk freely about the things that went on in their respective pasts and the effect it has had on her. The question we have to wait almost to the very end of the book to discover is: what letter is she holding because there are many letters in this book, some of which get delivered and some which do not.
There, if you think I've revealed too much just know that I've really told you very little.
The blurb on the press release informed me that "[a]nyone who loved L. P. Hartley's The Go-Between or Ian McEwan's Atonement will fall for this extraordinary coming-of-age novel". In The Go-Between, Leo is pressurised into passing letters back and forth; in Atonement, Briony is only asked to deliver a single letter, the wrong letter as it happens, but, in The Very Thought of You Anna is merely asked to retrieve letters. All three books are very different but the key element is the same in each of them: the long-term (and to varying degrees detrimental) effects of children being exposed to adult relationships before they can fully grasp what they are witnessing.
But did I enjoy the book? Yes. Apart from one convenient discovery right at the very end of the book nothing felt contrived. Yes, there had to be a plot device to get Anna down the corridor that fateful night and her bed wetting was a perfect choice, much better than having her heading off for a midnight snack in the kitchen; that also would have worked but it would have changed the character of the girl.
Despite the fact that there was not as much of Anna in the book as I might have hoped she was well fleshed out. She too is a plot device if you think about it. She needs to be in certain places at certain times for things to move on but the things that happen to her feel believable. The same goes for all the supporting cast; even the minor characters managed to avoid feeling like cardboard cut-outs.
What I didn't like about the book was that it was a little too neat and clean. Neat in that all i's were dotted and t's crossed. Clean in that if this had been presented as a TV movie I would have been quite happy to watch it with my wife but I'm sure she would have enjoyed it more than me. There is also nothing graphic about the book. There is swearing but no swearing, sex but no sex (no sex to speak of). In American cinematic parlance I'd have to describe it as 'very PG-13'. If Anna had been the narrator I could have understood this but not written in the third person.
I mentioned before that it felt like a novelisation. On the subject of adaptation, Alison had this to say over at Notes from the Underground:
As I look back over Heyday’s list of optioned novels, I wonder what have been the guiding principles behind those choices. When weighing up a novel’s dramatic potential, we look for compelling characters or relationships, an intriguing viewpoint, a powerful drama, and a story which reaches through to a satisfying destination. A distinct world is an advantage, as is a story with an urgent moral or dramatic imperative. Anything too meditative or internal is difficult, as is anything with a profusion of characters dispersed over too many years. Unity of time, place and action help.
If you take the points she raises above and make that a checklist then you could tick off every one when it comes to this book and I would be surprised to find the possibility of turning this into a film never crossed her mind as she was working on it. Heyday is the film company she works for by the way.
This is a well-written book. It's certainly not literary fiction but it is intelligently written with an eye for detail but just enough detail to get the readers' imaginations going. That I appreciate. At 306 pages it's about the right length but if it ever gets filmed I'm sure they'll lose a good 50 pages. We really don't need that history of the Ashton family as interesting as it might be. An audience will tolerate only so much back-story.
I fancy most men would run a mile from this book if they were to pick it up in a bookshop. When will publishers realise that a good book will sell on its own merits and does not have to be neatly pigeon-holed as "Chick Lit" or "Bloke Lit" or "A woman's book" in order to move off the shelves?
If you read his review you'll see it's very positive. That's two blokes that have enjoyed this novel. And I suspect others would but, and this is the point I made when I reviewed The Sonnets, this book could find a wider audience with a different cover. Why should they decide what I'm going to like?
Alma clearly does think this book is a seller though. According to Bookseller.com:
Alessandro Gallenzi, publishing director at Alma, said: "I thought I was reading a page from Jane Eyre or The Go-Between". The book is being positioned as Alma's lead title for [this] year. It will be published in trade paperback in June. Gallenzi said the initial print run would be about 10,000.
You can read the first three chapters here and make your own mind up. All I can say is that my wife is now looking to read the thing and that was simply based on the chat I had with her to order my thoughts before I sat down to work on this.
Born in 1964, Rosie Alison read English at Keble College, Oxford. She is Head of Children's Development at Heyday Films, which is the British production company behind the Harry Potter film series for Warner Bros. Prior to joining Heyday, Rosie had been a documentary producer/director for more than 10 years - working at the LWT arts department, BBC Music & Arts and Talkback Features. Her programme credits have included The South Bank Show, Omnibus, The Lipstick Years and Grand Designs. She has recently co-produced two feature films (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, just released, and the forthcoming film Is There Anybody There?).