This odd little book from 1940, a favorite of my blogging friend Simon, is the story of a man who finds himself in over his head after telling what seems to be a harmless lie that somehow becomes true. When Norman is on holiday in Ireland with his friend Henry, they make up stories about an elderly woman named Miss Hargreaves. After coming up with her in a conversation with the sexton at the church they’re visiting, they start piling on more an more details about her eccentricities, including a cockatoo named Mr. Pepusch and a bath that she takes with her everywhere. They even go so far as to write “Miss Hargreaves” a note inviting her to visit Norman at his home in the town of Cornford.
It’s something of a surprise to them both when she turns up. And her appearance leaves Norman absolutely bewildered. How did this happen? And how can he cope with this bizarre creature? Miss Hargreaves is herself an absurd creation. She barges into forbidden spaces in the church, insisting that Norman play the organ more loudly and using more pipes than he’s supposed to. She insists that the staff where she is lodging remove decorations she finds unattractive and move beds around so her dog, Sarah, can sleep more comfortably. And all the while she insists that she “abominates fuss.” This would all be difficult enough if Norman weren’t so flummoxed about her actual existence!
At the same time, there’s something likable about Miss Hargreaves and her way of just barging through the world, doing things her way. And Norman finds himself feeling conflicted about her presence more than once. He wants her gone, yet he frets about her. He turns his back on her, but he can’t leave her alone, even after (because of another of Norman’s confabulations) she decides she wants nothing to do with him. He doesn’t handle her presence well and is sometimes outright cruel, but I read this as rising out of his confusion — and the fact that Miss Hargreaves really is a lot.
Part of the book’s charm is that it doesn’t make any attempt to explain what has happened. Norman’s dad refers a few times to his own experiences having things he thought up appear in reality, so there’s a hint there. But Norman’s dad exists in his own mental space and isn’t the most reliable of narrators. There’s some suggestion that the ghastly church in Ireland made it happen, but why and how isn’t clear. And Miss Hargreaves herself doesn’t seem to understand her existence. She just is.
The book’s conclusion is odd in that it both sets things right and doesn’t. It feels like things turn out the way they’re supposed to but also badly. I suspect different readers will respond very differently to it, depending on how they respond to Miss Hargreaves’ existence. I liked the ambiguity of it. I think the absurdity of the story demands a messy conclusion.