A first novel is always a joy to find, whether good or bad, it is a new voice with new potential. In this case, The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh, the writing has already been recognised in the short story genre, but sustaining a novel is quite a different task.
This is a mildly dystopian novel. Three girls and their parents are holed up on what the daughters think is an island, surrounded by protective wire, they are under the impression that they are being saved from pollution, and male savagery.
Their father takes a boat and gets stores; in the early days women (no men allowed) used to come in various states of weakness, to be cured. They were tended by the mother until they were well enough to undergo the water cure, total immersion in a salt bath with incantation.
One day, the father does not come back. They wait and then their mother vanishes…
The writing is good enough for this story to become compelling, although once read to the end it seems to have been slightly flimsy. There are so many “whys” that remain unanswered. It is not really my sort of novel, so maybe I am being unnecessarily harsh, but with other more believable and more engaging dystopian fictions abounding, many of them on the subject of female disempowerment, I think that this one rather misses the mark.
My alternative offerings are completely different. Both are love stories, one a defiantly gay novel, the other slightly adulterous in the human sense and utterly focused in another way.
Alan Hollinghurst is well known and unashamedly a gay writer of gay novels. His early novels, The Swimming Pool Library might have been a bit lubricious for general taste, but his new novel is more refined and covers the English homosexual scene from before the time it was legal right through to the present day.
There are two main characters in The Sparsholt Affair, though this is not quite accurate, they are the hooks upon which the whole book hangs. David Sparsholt and Evert Dax. We see them first in a University setting (Oxford as it happens) just immediately before the Second World War takes young men from their studies, David is learning to fly and Evert is undecided. In the final intense flurry before the war collects them and mashes them up in its jaws, these two form a strong and abiding friendship that lasts to the end of their lives.
At University they belong to a small group, men like Freddie Green who is doing something secret at Blenheim Palace and women like Connie who is also there in a different capacity.
Hollinghurst describes and covers all the situations that have taken and destroyed men and reputations; then the changes that made the whole thing different but privately acceptable and finally brought the rainbow spectrum fully into the open. This is a very subtle and complex history and it is beautifully discovered and displayed in this delightful novel. The relationships between the older men and their younger companions, the women that have admired and adored them, the unrequited and the fulfilled loves are all here in this loving and delicate story.
The second, The Librarian, is also a love story, but the main characters are the children’s books that the librarian of the title helps her young readers to enjoy and explore. In this novel, Salley Vickers is doing two things. She is writing about a beautiful love story between the librarian and the local doctor, and banging the drum for the importance of libraries in the development of the imagination of young children. In fact, libraries in general, but especially those for children.
Set in East Mole, the first part of the book is about the arrival of Sylvia Blackwell as the local children’s librarian. The Senior Librarian, a Mr Booth, is a decidedly reprobate character, his envy of her ability and evident success leads on to its bitter conclusion; the second part of the book tells of one of the characters returning, now herself a successful children’s author, to speak up against the closure of the East Mole library, and what happens as a result.
Salley Vickers has paid tribute to the librarian who inspired her as a child, her name was really Miss Blackwell. She also helpfully lists all the books that she has cited in the novel, many of them real favourites, especially Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, which links lots of the characters who have read it (or not read it). She also reveals that two of her own children also write, Rowan Brown (one of three dedicatees, the others being Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson) and Richard Kingfisher – which I never realised and am please to learn, since I love their books too.