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Nursing Wounds he Small Hours By Susie Boyt (Virago 216pp £14.99)
Harriet, our heroine, is a tall, awkward, wealthy woman, ‘Miss Havisham on wheels’ as she describes herself. We first encounter her leaving her shrink, apparently cured after seven years of therapy, and determined to found a nursery school that will supply all the love and creativity her own childhood lacked. A lavishly appointed, child-centred place for imaginative, sensitive and (it goes without saying) rich little girls, it has a fabulous doll’s house, a vegetable garden, cookery lessons and even a gypsy wagonette in the garden. We also know, pretty early on, that the school will only last for two years before disaster strikes. How this comes about, and why Harriet is so damaged, form the twin engines of the plot.
Susie Boyt has always been good at depicting how easily sensitive children can be crushed or misunderstood by their families, but The Small Hours, her fifth novel, is a giant leap forward in both style and command of her subject. Her bestselling memoir, My Judy Garland Life, gave us some inkling of what might be unleashed when she really found her voice, and Harriet is like a grown-up version of Sara in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess. Her highly coloured self-awareness, her selfadmonitions, her determination to do the best she can and her overblown way of talking and responding make her simultaneously sympathetic, pitiful and fantastically irritating, whether she is making 18 perfect tiny marzipan fruit bowls for her pupils or staying up all night with a child abandoned by both her parents and her nanny. ‘I know I often grate on people and I always have to hold myself in, but children accept me for some reason. Don’t have to make myself smaller, saner, stupider,’ she tells her therapist, and it ’s true.
Anyone who has experience of a successful private nursery school will find the characters in The Small Hours painfully funny: the pretty mothers, ‘slightly unreal like a high building viewed through fumes’ or wearing gold necklaces with the word ‘Cunt’ inscribed on them; the handsome fathers working in the ‘chaotic profitable underbelly of the vaguely creative arts’; the energetic young staff; the preternaturally articulate little pupils. Boyt’s eye for the quirky, the gorgeous and the absurd also carries a moral force. Harriet’s immense and painstaking attention to detail flows from her sense of thwarted love, but the mothers at the nursery school are narcissists, and alas all too true to life. They fuss about the kind of paintings their daughters produce – ‘I can’t help noticing that she seems to be using many more cold colours in them than the warmer colours’ – but cancel a child’s fourth birthday as punishment for not doing as she is told. None seems to understand her child as an individual, and up until the dramatic climax of the novel none seems to experience parental love as a visceral, powerful, redemptive force. Only Harriet, through whose questionable eyes we see all events, has this response, and as the novel progresses we come to understand and pity her more deeply. The diary extracts of her time in a mental hospital are superfluous in an otherwise tightly controlled narrative that, beneath an apparently conventional structure, shows the approach of mania in a good but damaged woman.
Boyt has revealed that even the most privileged childhood can and does contain monstrosities and secrets. Both her wit and her interest in the fragility of innocence when confronted by selfishness, parental neglect and actual evil reveal an acute perspicacity derived from that of Henry James. The Small Hours is an absolute gem of a novel: exquisite, diamond-bright and lacerating to the hardest of hearts. To order this book for £11.99, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 35
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