Larchfield, by Polly Clark
I will confess to being a little nervous about readers’ reactions to this book, when I realised it took a turn for the magical (un)realism mid way through. Dora and Wystan’s erstwhile ‘relationship’ became more direct than reality would allow, but in the end I think the majority conceded that it didn’t spoil the overall plot, or the tone of the novel.
In fact, despite the fact that some felt this jarred at first – and that it was also a ‘slow burner’ in terms of grabbing our attention in the first chapters – the outcome for the book was overall very positive and well liked.
This may be mostly due to Polly Clark’s feel for poetry, hence the language and imagery was lovely at times. John Boyne, in his review of the book, spoke of “ the joy of (poetry) and the novel ” and there are numerous clever motifs, repetitions and parallels throughout the book. The Guardian praised it for its “technical accomplishment, multiple plots and subplots, real lives, invented lives, complex and criss-crossing timelines”.
Clark’s knowledge of WH Auden allowed her to paint a very ‘true’ picture of the man, faults and all. His unending searching for love - and romance above all - , from Berlin brothels to local train stations, within the context of 1930’s Scotland, is portrayed sympathetically and with great poignancy. Whether or not Dora elicited the same sympathy from the readers is interesting. Dora was a complex character, some felt all of her struggles acutely and others were left irritated by her passivity and apparent lack of gratitude for what she had. But it’s often a complicated character that gives us the best bookclub discussions!
Many of the secondary characters were also worthy of discussion – Jessop the schoolteacher, Daphne the depressed wife, Mo and Terence the bigoted ‘Christian’ neighbours. None of these played a huge role, but their presence and characterisation added a lot of texture to the story.
The ‘slow descent into madness’ is cleverly paced – and this is where the ‘dreamlike’ sequences become a useful tool for the writer. Eventually we ( and Dora) are forced back into reality and to confront what is actually happening to her – “ like throwing herself from air into water”. We can only hope that her husband Kit will step up to be redeemed as a more supportive partner instead of the ‘1950’s man’ he comes across as during the book.
On a side note, her second novel will be released in May, and is very differently themed! It’s called Tiger, and features a zookeeper character ( a previous occupation of Polly Clark’s).