I had a plan for my post on Rosie Alison's The Very Thought of You. It was a good plan; it was a kind plan. I was going to give it all the benefit of the doubt I could muster. I thought it would be unfair to hold it up and measure it against the likes of Mantel and Kingsolver and Waters. So I was going to judge it by a different standard, for the gentile love-story that it is, and not as a serious contender for the Orange Prize. But my plan has been foiled by the judges, who have chosen for better or for worse to put it on their shortlist. Now I have no choice. I have to put this book squarely alongside Wolf Hall and The Lacuna, and see how it measures up. I can't help thinking that the judges have done Rosie Alison a disservice with their decision, because her book doesn't fare well by this comparison. I feel like I have to be honest and say, with no desire to be cruel: There is no way that The Very Thought of You is the best novel written by a woman between April 2009 and April 2010. It just isn't in the same league as the three other shortlisters I have read thus far, not in terms of plot, or theme, or prose, or sentiment. And I don't think it ever aspired to be.
Anna Sands is eight years old and her world is small. She loves her mother, Roberta, with a bright-eyed devotion, and she likes her new shoes; a knickerbocker glory in the roof-top restaurant of a department store is the utmost of her desires. But it is the 31st August 1939, and everything is about to change, for the world and for Anna. Like thousands of other children she is to be evacuated from her London home to the countryside, leaving behind her mother and exchanging the city streets of the capital for the leafy environs of Ashton Park in Yorkshire. The park's childless owners, Thomas and Elizabeth Ashton, have decided to transform their country house into a school for evacuees for the duration of the war. A patriotic act, yes, but also a last-ditch attempt to fill the gap in their lives (and their marriage) where their own young family should be.
Ashton Park seen through Anna's eyes is a brave new world. She misses her mother, of course, but the grand house and its grounds are a revelation to her:
...Anna saw the glory of autumn for the first time. Great avenues of trees towered with colour. Wide lawns glinted with ripe conkers, and gusts of wind swept down leaves in fiery drifts. The weather reached right through her fingertips and deep inside her, until she felt different and new.
She likes her teachers too, especially grave, gentle Mr Ashton and her quiet English teacher, Miss Weir. The other children are not so impressed by her, and she doesn't make friends easily; she 'tiptoes across the unknown territory of other children's affections clumsy with self-doubt.' But she doesn't mind being alone with her thoughts. She is a preternaturally thoughtful little girl, as though she knew that she was the heroine of someone's novel. Which, I suppose is why I find it so difficult to believe in her. But I'll come back to that.
Anna is only one of several point-of-view characters in a narrative which leaps at will from the interiority of one mind to another, and from backstory to present action. Thomas Ashton has a key role to play as the unlikely romantic lead. Once a diplomat in Europe he is now approaching middle-age, crippled by polio and turned Classics teacher, struggling daily with his disappointments: his failing marriage, his loneliness, his weak body. The children and his new vocation give him some comfort but his wife Elizabeth's descent into alcoholism and their raging rows are barely contained beneath the surface. In her turn Elizabeth longs desperately for a baby, flinging herself headlong into petty affairs in an attempt to conceive, and punishing her husband for what she knows to be her own barrenness. Into this seething mess comes mousy Ruth Weir, a clergyman's daughter with no pretensions to romance, so unassuming and plain that nobody notices her. Until Thomas that is.
What follows is a pretty straightforward love-story, albeit adulterous - the stilted conversations, the misunderstandings, the doubts, the yearnings, and then the confessions that follow have a cloying inevitability. The narrative trajectory is never in doubt, mostly because the reader sees the blossoming affinity between Ruth and Thomas from both sides. The omniscient narrator is everywhere. The characters may know nothing of each other's hearts, but we know everything. Joining us on the periphery, as constant a voyeur as we are, is little Anna, observing and witnessing more than she should between Thomas, Elizabeth and Ruth, but barely understanding what she sees. The comparisons that have been made with L.P. Hartley's The Go-Between are apt in this sense (although this is nowhere near as subtle), with the child acting as an unwitting accomplice in the politics of adulthood. On the back of my copy allusions are also made to similarities with Sadie Jones and Ian McEwan (I assume they're thinking specifically of Atonement), as though pointing out that The Very Thought of You is about emotional repression, thwarted love and the limited understanding of children in a country house setting will elevate it to a standard set by these two authors.
It won't though; it can't. It isn't the fault of the prose as such. Alison can string readable words together; and there is nothing to make you sigh or roll your eyes apart from the occasional sad cliche. It isn't great but it isn't bad, which at least makes the book readable sentence-to-sentence. It isn't the story's failing either, or not really. There is something to be said for the basic premise: a young girl, thrust into a new environment, witnesses the reckless passions of adults and is left reeling in their wake for the rest of her life. It isn't new ground, but there is some richness left in the soil. I thought that in the last third of the novel, when we fast-forward in time and meet Anna again in her middle and then old age, to witness the repercussions of her wartime experiences, it was momentarily possible to see how complex and subtle it all could have been. How Anna's experiences could have been married to the experiences of her whole generation; how Thomas, Ruth and Elizabeth's actions and inactions could have said something powerful about a world beyond Ashton Park. The potential is definitely there.
It is the narratorial voice that kills it stone-dead for me. Alison's narrator is all-seeing and excessively controlling, to the extent that there are no characters, there are only puppets having their strings pulled for them. There is also no reader either, or at least no need for one. I have never met with a book that made me feel so utterly redundant a participant in the reading process. The narrator knows exactly how everyone in the books thinks and feels, and precisely what everything means or will mean; nothing is ambiguous. The characters very rarely speak at all. Instead the narrator speaks for them, telling us rather than showing us what is going on inside their most private selves. When a character does speak, in a moment of rare dialogue, the narrator quickly and often needlessly glosses their words so that we won't wrongly interpret what they mean. This leaves no room for the book to breath or speak for itself. The characters have no thoughts except those which are assigned to them, and the reader has nothing to do. For me this takes away the true pleasure of reading, which I conceive as an intellectually, emotionally and morally active sort of activity rather than the exercise in passivity that The Very Thought of You makes it.I think this problem may be symptomatic of the way The Very Thought of You was written and conceived of. It is obviously a very personal book for the author - some of the more peripheral characters are Rosie Alison's real-life ancestors, and the model for Ashton Park is a place she has visited and been inspired by - and you can see how every detail of every moment and exchange has been imagined by her and revisited over and over until she has it exactly right. So she wants us to experience each scene as she experiences it, rather than experiencing it for ourselves, and this is why she stuffs the book with narratorial directives. Just in case you didn't get it when Anna says this she feels like that, or when Thomas does that he feels like this. The problem is that there is no room for me in there. This is a book that doesn't want to play with others; it doesn't engage in a conversation. It is someone else's story; it belongs to her completely and it will never be mine.
'What happens to the Annas of this world?' Thomas asks Ruth at one point, during one of their stilted conversations; 'They find it hard to meet anyone who will take life as seriously as they do,' she replies. It is just about the truest and most interesting thing anyone says in the course of The Very Thought of You, and because the narrator is focused on choreographing the flourishing romance between Thomas and Ruth, they let this insight into Anna and her future stand for itself. There is no clumsy interpretation or forced rhetorical question to follow. We are allowed to consider the implications at will. What a blessed relief after being poked and prodded and forced through the whole course of the book.