Book choice for November 2009

The Go-Between [suggested by Ash Davies]

front cover

Resembling both McEwan's Atonement and Frayn's Spies in its plot, this 1953 novel, recently reprinted, tells of a pre-adolescent's naive meddling in the love lives of elders, with disastrous results. Set in the summer of 1900, when the hopes and dreams for the century were as yet untarnished by two world wars and subsequent horrors, this novel is quietly elegant in style, its emotional upheavals restrained, and its 12-year-old main character, Leo Colston, so earnest, hopeful, and curious about life that the reader cannot help but be moved by his innocence.

Leo's summer visit to a friend at Brandham Hall introduces him to the landed gentry, the privileges they have assumed, and the strict social behaviors which guide their everyday lives. Bored and wanting to be helpful when his friend falls ill, Leo agrees to be a messenger carrying letters between Marian, his host's sister, and Ted Burgess, her secret love, a farmer living nearby. Catastrophe is inevitable - and devastating to Leo. In descriptive and nuanced prose, Hartley evokes the heat of summer and the emotional conflicts it heightens, the intensity rising along with the temperature. Magic spells, creatures of the zodiac, and mythology create an overlay of (chaste) paganism for Leo's perceptions, while widening the scope of Hartley's focus and providing innumerable parallels and symbols for the reader.

The emotional impact of the climax is tremendous, heightened by the author's use of three perspectives - Leo Colston as a man in his 60's, permanently damaged by events when he was 12; Leo as a 12-year-old, wrestling with new issues of class, social obligation, friendship, morality, and love, while inadvertently causing a disaster; and the reader himself, for whom hindsight and knowledge of history create powerful ironies as he views these events and the way of life they represent. Some readers have commented on Leo's unrealistic innocence in matters of sex, even as a 12-year-old, but this may be a function of age. For those of us who can remember life without TV and the computer, it is not so far-fetched to imagine a life in which "mass communication" meant the telegraph and in which "spooning" was an adults-only secret. [Review by Mary Whipple on Amazon]

Naturally the book has a Wikipedia page.

About the Author

L.P. Hartley was an English novelist, short-story writer, and critic whose works fuse a subtle observation of manners traditional to the English novel with an interest in the psychological nuance.

After he got his degree at the University of Oxford (1922), Hartley wrote criticism for the literary reviews and published short stories, many of them fantastic or macabre. A collection, Night Fears, appeared in 1924. His novella Simonetta Perkins (1925) was a light exercise in cosmopolitan manners, with a plot that recalls Henry James's "international" stories. The Killing Bottle (1932) was another collection of stories. The Shrimp and the Anemone (1944), his first novel in 19 years, was the first part of a trilogy about a brother and sister, Eustace and Hilda. The first volume treats their childhood. The Sixth Heaven (1946) and Eustace and Hilda (1947) follow them in adulthood. Adept at depicting childhood, Hartley focusses the action of another of his novels, The Go-Between (1953; filmed 1971), on a 12-year-old boy who inadvertently causes a tragedy through his ignorance of the complexity of adult relations.

Relations between brothers and sisters were further explored in My Sisters' Keeper (1970). Hartley's most complex and fully realized novel is The Boat (1949), in which he explores the struggles of a crowd-avoiding individual in England during World War II, when group effort and identification were the norm. A volume of essays, The Novelist's Responsibility, appeared in 1967 and The Collected Stories of L.P. Hartley in 1968.

The above is taken from Hartley's biography on the Britannica Online Encyclopedia; he also has a Wikipedia entry.


Shortlisted for this month

The nominator can bring one, two, or three books to be chosen by the group (or mandated in the case of only one book being selected). This month, Ash's other suggestions were:

The Return of the Native

The Return of the Native

Underneath the dense verbiage of the Hardy prose, lies a superb tale. The story of an exotic-looking maid, with the sort of mouth Hardy takes a page to describe. With her daddy coming from Corfu, she brings a raven-haired exotic beauty to the dour and sombre Egdon Heath. She's eaten up with a wanting and a yearning and she'll do anything and ruin any life to get what she wants. So this young vixen needs a man but she can't make her mind up. Her burning passion and love of drama fuel a self-destructive caprice. Blinded by her own narcissism and egotism. Karma? Nemesis? A deus ex machina dressed in red. A snake in the grass. She must escape. She must. Will she? Hardy's exquisitely constructed mechanism relentlessly ticks away, bringing her closer, closer to her fate. Amusing country yokels providing comic relief. [Review by S.J.Wade on Amazon]

See also the book's Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Thomas Hardy was born at Higher Bockhampton, a hamlet in the parish of Stinsford to the east of Dorchester in Dorset, England. His father (Thomas) worked as a stonemason and local builder. His mother Jemima was well-read and educated Thomas until he went to his first school at Bockhampton at age eight. For several years he attended a school run by a Mr Last. Here he learned Latin and demonstrated academic potential. However, a family of Hardy's social position lacked the means for a university education, and his formal education ended at the age of 16 when he became apprenticed to John Hicks, a local architect. Hardy trained as an architect in Dorchester before moving to London in 1862; there he enrolled as a student at King's College, London. He won prizes from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Architectural Association. Hardy never felt at home in London. He was acutely conscious of class divisions and his social inferiority. However, he was interested in social reform and was familiar with the works of John Stuart Mill. He was also introduced to the works of Charles Fourier and Auguste Comte during this period by his Dorset friend Horace Moule. Five years later, concerned about his health, he returned to Dorset and decided to dedicate himself to writing.

The above taken from the author's Wikipedia entry, there is another (copyrighted) biog here and also some useful information on The Hardy Society webpages.



This novel flows like a river through time and space, taking history and misfortune as its central themes. Told from the perspective of a London-based history teacher at the end of his school career, the narrator takes us (and his class of pupils) back to the lost Fenland of his youth, to revisit the past in an effort to understand what is happening to him in the present. As a meditation on history and the historical process, it is second to none. As a meditation on place - including London, where, after all, the memories crowd in - it is a worthy inheritor of the likes of Thomas Hardy, John Cowper Powys and Ronald Blyth (of Akenfield fame); and the description of the launch of Coronation Ale (which is surely based on Adnams' deadly Broadside; or maybe even Green King's IPA) is one of the best accounts of mass drunkenness in all literature. [review by R Hamblyn on Amazon]

The novel has its own Wikipedia page and as it's a common occupier of English Lit. syllabi, there's also an online study guide if you really want to get into the nitty-gritty.

About the Author

Novelist Graham Swift was born in London in 1949. He was educated at Dulwich College, Queens' College, Cambridge, and York University. He was nominated as one of the 20 'Best of Young British Novelists' in the Book Marketing Council's promotion in 1983.

He is the author of eight novels. The first, The Sweet Shop Owner (1980), is narrated by disillusioned shopkeeper Willy Chapman, and unfolds over the course of a single day in June. The narrator of his second novel, Shuttlecock (1981), winner of the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, becomes obsessed with his father's experiences during the Second World War.

Waterland, his acclaimed third novel, was published in 1983. Narrated by history teacher Tom Crick, it describes his youth spent in the Norfolk fens during the Second World War. These personal memories are woven into a greater history of the area, slowly revealing the seeds of a family legacy that threatens his marriage. The book won the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. It was followed by Out of this World (1988), the story of a photojournalist and his estranged daughter, and Ever After (1992), in which a university professor makes a traumatic discovery about his career.

The above biog taken from the author's Contemporary Writers pages, and you can also find him on Wikipedia.


Previous Months' Book Choices

October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
November 2008
October 2008
September 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
November 2007
October 2007
September 2007
August 2007
July 2007
June 2007
May 2007
April 2007
March 2007
February 2007
January 2007
November 2006
October 2006
September 2006
August 2006
July 2006
June 2006
May 2006