Friday, 25 May 2018

Book Review: The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay change of scenery is a good idea sometimes, but it has hardly the power to do wonders, at least not promptly. The world that each one of us lives in is more than the environment that we perceive with our senses. Memories and experiences give everything a unique tint no matter where we are or go, i.e. we can’t run away from them – nor from ourselves. The novel The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay is about Barbary, a tomboy whom her mother sends away from Provence to live with her father in London and to drop her savage habits adopted in the French Resistance. Emotionally scarred by the experience of occupation and war as well as by the separation from her mother, she feels completely out of place in her father’s new family and roams the ruins left by air raids seeking the company of outcasts like herself.

Rose Macaulay was born in Rugby, Warwickshire, England, U.K., in August 1881. After studying Modern History at Somerville College in Oxford, she made her debut as novellist in 1906 with Abbots Verney that was followed by other novels before The Lee Shore (1913) finally brought success. She also wrote poetry and published her first collection under the title The Two Blind Countries in 1914. During World War I she volunteered as nurse and land girl before becoming a civil servant in the War Office. After the war Rose Macaulay wrote a series of highly successful social satires, most notable among them Potterism (1920), Dangerous Ages (1921), Told by an Idiot (1923), Crewe Train (1926), and Keeping Up Appearances (1928). In addition, she produced short stories, essays and journalistic work along with literary criticism, a few biographies (both fictionalised and non-fiction) and travelogues. During World War II she volunteered as ambulance driver. Today the author is best remembered for her final two novels, namely The World My Wilderness (1950) and The Towers of Trebizond (1956). A few months after having been named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, Rose Macaulay died in London, England, U.K., in October 1958.

The heroine of The World My Wilderness is seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston, daughter of Sir Gulliver Deniston and his wife Helen. Just before World War II, Helen deserted husband as well as son and moved to Southern France only with her daughter in tow. Soon afterwards, Helen met Maurice Michel who became her lover and – after the divorce – her second husband. In 1946, Barbary lives in the Villa Fraises (Strawberry Mansion in English) in Collioure in Provence with her recently widowed mother, her fifteen-year-old stepbrother Raoul and her baby half-brother Roland. Helen is a careless mother and Barbary a real tomboy.
“ […] She looked childish for her age, small, with bare brown legs, a short pink print frock, draggled and wet, a prawning net trailing from her hand, a colourless, irregular, olive face, full, rather sulky mouth, fine broad forehead, flaggy dark hair, unwaved, perhaps unkempt, flapping about her neck, slanting, secret grey eyes that looked aside, looked often on the ground under a dark, frowning line of brow; something defensive, puzzled, wary about her, like a watchful little animal or savage. […]”
Since her stepfather Maurice drowned or was drowned, Barbary has fallen into disgrace with her mother. Behind her back it has been arranged that her elder brother Richie comes to Collioure to take her back to London with him to live at their father’s house. Although she believes that it’s only for a prolonged visit and art studies, she can’t bear the idea of having to deal with intruders, i.e. the new wife – Pamela – and new baby – David. It little consoles her that stepbrother Raoul, too, is sent to London for studies because they won’t live under the same roof.
“By the second week of May, Barbary was working at the Slade, where she went daily in a bus. The London streets all seemed to her very ugly and dull after Collioure. She lunched on sandwiches, and after the afternoon lessons often met Raoul, who attended a commercial school in Guilford Street, where he improved his English and learnt bookkeeping, accounts, shorthand and correspondence. […]”
Barbary and Raoul pass most of their spare time wandering about London and it’s the bomb ruins near St. Paul’s of all places where they feel at home and find friends among the spivs and deserters hiding there. Unable to bear the family summer holidays in Scotland, Barbary even runs away – back home to the ruins. Helpless her father lets her stay in London with the cook who warns the girl, but she doesn’t listen. When Barbary passes from painting postcards of the stony vestiges of war for tourists to shoplifting, she suffers a dangerous accident running from the police…

It’s an unconcerned and unsentimental third-person narrator who unfolds what the teenage protagonist must perceive as The World My Wilderness after all that she went through since her mother left home and England with her in 1939. Not enough that she had to adapt to another culture and to what we call today a patchwork family, she had to deal with the challenges of German occupation and war in Southern France, too. How traumatising the experience really was for the adolescent girl is only hinted at when a friend with a crush on her asks for a kiss and thus arouses the suppressed memory of what happened between her and a young German soldier. Against this backdrop Barbary appears a psychologically deep and extremely credible protagonist who is better prepared to deal with chaos than with the well-ordered life that her gentleman father has to offer. The scenery painted in great detail and powerful imagery clearly mirrors the protagonist’s state of mind, notably her uprootedness and disorientation. However, the other central characters of the novel feel no less alive and authentic. The author’s language is precise and unpretentious with a poetical touch that adds to the pleasure of the read.

To my great relief, The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay has turned out to be an interesting and rather engaging read for me – unlike this author’s final and most famous as well as most praised novel, The Towers of Trebizond, which I read a few years ago and quite loathed because its biting sense of humour irritated me a lot. I definitely preferred the book from 1950 because it shows impressively that a war doesn’t end with the fighting, but has a lasting impact on the soul of all people affected by it one way or another, especially on the children. In addition, it’s a time piece evoking the bomb ruins of London that only few will still remember today… certainly not I who was born a quarter of a century after the end of World War II! All things considered, it’s another book that clearly deserves my recommendation.

1 comment:

  1. A powerful review of a powerful book. I had heard of the author but never read her. She sounds prodigious.


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