When Claire Temple was young, she was a literary celebrity, was proposed to by Oscar Wilde, was surrounded by friends, and had a lover or two. She was happy. Now, as the Blitz tears London apart, she’s on her own and unhappy:
No, it was so unfair that she couldn’t help but imagine that there was some conspiracy against her. Her enemies, people she had annoyed by saying amusing things about, but things which, of course, had been indiscreet because naturally they were repeated, her enemies had got together and delivered her into the hands of her cook, a cruel and vulgar woman, of whom all that could be said was that her savouries were quite good. So no more conversation, no more parties, no more flirtation, nothing except that she was still as light as she had ever been , and so she could still dance, even if it were all by herself.
Claire tries to keep her spirits up, but her memory loss and the near-constant confusion that results makes it difficult. Her cook, Kathleen, doesn’t have much patience with her, but it’s hard to have patience with someone who asks the same question or shares the same anecdote repeatedly during the same conversation.
In this 1944 novel, Norah Hoult lets readers see the struggle from all sides. We get in the minds of Claire and Kathleen and the various acquaintances and helpers who turn up. Sadly, Claire really does have few friends left. Her oldest friend, Edith Barlow, does visit every couple of weeks, but the visits are miserable. Edith gets frustrated with Claire’s wandering mind, and, in her loneliness, Claire makes it nearly impossible for Edith to leave. My heart ached for both of them.
Most of the people around Claire are staff. Although she’s no longer wealthy, she is able to employ a full-time cook, and a woman comes to do the wash every week. But the war has made lucrative jobs more available to women, and so she lost her secretary to a better opportunity. But the secretary does stop by once in a while to go over her finances and help make plans. The servants and staff form a sort of community, who work together to keep Claire safe. It’s not, however, an inspiring and happy thing. It’s more that these are women who do what is necessary. Set against the backdrop of war, caring for Claire seems like part and parcel of what people had to do. They had to pull together, even if it was miserable and thankless work.
I find it interesting that most of Claire’s helpers are paid help or visitors who come out of obligation or other mixed motives (one comes to collect papers for the war effort). This fact certainly emphasizes Claire’s lonely state, but what does it mean for the caregivers? Would their side of the story have been more distressing if Claire was someone they loved? Or would they have been able to find meaning in caring for a loved one? I would say that they do this work because they have to, but most of them have other options.
One of the things that impressed me most about this book was the way Hoult doesn’t flinch from the misery, nor does she ramp it up to excessive levels. It feels real–distressingly real. It’s awful to see someone with no options left, having to live according to others’ dictates because even her own mind betrays her, causing her to open the curtains during a blackout or accuse her companion of poisoning her. And it’s equally awful to see people who are trying to help, but finding their efforts are scoffed at and rejected.
This is a sad book, an interesting companion to May Sarton’s As We Are Now, which focuses on the mind of the woman with the failing memory. It seems to be one of the lesser-known Persephone Books, and it’s certainly more unsettling than many of them. But I’m glad I read it. I think it’ll haunt me for a while.