Monday, June 17, 2013

Leading different lives

Flowers on the Grass, Monica Dickens

If this book is any indication, I am going to enjoy Monica Dickens' fiction just as much as the memoirs that introduced her to me.  That's good, since in my first enthusiasm I've collected a few of her books (as often happens with new literary crushes).  This one I bought under a misapprehension, though, from a section in her autobiography where she was talking about a cottage that she bought in Hertfordshire: "Under these idyllic conditions, I wrote a novel called Flowers on the Grass, which began and ended in this cottage."  In the next paragraph, she went on to talk about an idea she had had for years, to write a book about alternative lives, along the lines of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life.  I didn't realize she was talking about different books (and one still unwritten at that).  So I started this one, expecting time slips and alternate selves - and it took me a couple of chapters to figure out my mistake and abandon my assumptions.

This book is, however, about different lives.  As Dickens explained, "I used the idea of a man disappearing from view and leading different lives as a stranger in different settings."  This man, Daniel Brett, had a difficult childhood. Orphaned at 14, he became the family's problem child, expelled from Eton and sent to live on Capri with a "disreputable great-aunt who had hitherto been outside the pale, but now proved her uses."  There he learns to draw and paint, but his studies are interrupted by the Second World War.  Returning to England and military service, he meets again one of his cousins, Jane.  She has been in love with him for years, yearning to make a home and family for him, in a cottage that sounds exactly like the one Monica Dickens found in Hertfordshire.  A tragedy in that cottage leaves Daniel alone again, and disinclined to stay there.

In each of the chapters that follow, Daniel is in a different place, a different job, a different life.  Each is titled with a person's name, and we're introduced first to that person.  We learn a little about them, who they are, what they do, how they live. And then Daniel wanders into their story.  The events that follow are told from their point of view.  In one chapter we meet Doris, a maid at a seaside hotel, preparing No. 4 for a new guest.  In another, George is finishing a meal at a roadside café.  On his way north with a truckload of goods, he reluctantly takes up a hitch-hiker.  In one of my favorite chapters, we meet Dickie, a host at the Gaydays Holiday Camp near Whitby, smart in his white slacks and bright-blue sweater, full of camp spirit.  To some of these lives, Daniel brings change, challenge, upset.  He is more open, to connection, to friendship, even to love, with some.  With others, he simply passes through their lives at a particular moment.

Each of the stories is self-contained, and only at the end do any of the characters reappear.  With most of the chapters, the ending came too soon for me.  I wanted to follow these people further into their lives, even if it meant abandoning Daniel.  I was particularly concerned about Pamela, a young student at an awful avant-garde school where Daniel briefly joins the faculty.  I suppose it's too much to hope that any of these people turn up in other books.  I also enjoyed the different settings, slices of life in England in the late 1940s.  I was impressed with the range of characters, most of whom felt like real people.  Dickens writes about them with warmth and empathy, while allowing them their faults and weaknesses.  She doesn't mock them, not even Dickie - though Daniel does, often.  Her narrative voice is different here, less sardonic and snarky, but equally observant.

N.B. The spell-check option has disappeared from my tool-bar.  No matter how many times I proof my drafts, I always find another mistake just after I hit the publish button - so mortifying.


  1. This sounds as though it might work in a manner similar to Elizabeth Strout's wonderful 'Olive Kitteridge' where you gradually build up a picture of Olive through a series of short stories, some of which hardly even mention her in passing. I rather like the sound of it. I am also wondering if this is where I went wrong in life. I should have been a terrible nuisance when I was fourteen and got sent off to Capri. I can definitely think of worse places to spend one's teenage years.

  2. This sounds unlike any other Monica Dickens I have ever read, and now you have me very curious. I have a copy with a very pretty cover, that was rather expensive but I had to buy, because the first chapter is named after me. And now I understand the multiplicity of names - thank you!

  3. But Alex, did you have an Auntie Mame figure to be sent to? I alas did not, on Capri or elsewhere.

    Jane - ah, not a typical Dickens then, if there is such a thing? I do love finding characters with my name - as long as they aren't evil.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!