I review Larchfield by Polly Clark.
‘We need the courage to choose ourselves’ W. H. Auden
It’s early summer when a young poet, Dora Fielding, moves to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland and her hopes are first challenged. Newly married, pregnant, she’s excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity. She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong. As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether.
Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Wystan H. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on success and society in London. Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected – rightly – of homosexuality. Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears.
The need for human connection compels these two vulnerable outsiders to find each other and make a reality of their own that will save them both. Echoing the depths of Possession, the elegance of The Stranger’s Child and the ingenuity of Longbourn, Larchfield is a beautiful and haunting novel about heroism – the unusual bravery that allows unusual people to go on living; to transcend banality and suffering with the power of their imagination.
I confess, I knew nothing of W.H. Auden before downloading Larchfield, but he seems like an incredibly fascinating individual. Clark introduces us to Auden as a recently published poet, heading north to join the teaching staff at a school in Helensburgh, Scotland. A homosexual in a time where being gay was illegal, Auden is careful and secretive, but he cannot help how deeply he falls in love – or with whom.
Dora, too, is a great character. Newly married, mother to a premature baby, Dora loses herself in the daily grind, the humdrum of life. A poet, with artistic friends stuck in their youth, Dora feels her own youth, her artistic reputation, slipping away – along with her senses. The neighbours upstairs are making her life hell; the small town is tightening around its own, forcing her out. After a particularly nasty encounter, Dora takes Bea, her daughter, down to the sea. There, she finds a bottle, and inside is a note from W.H. Auden. Already on the brink, Dora takes a step, and finds herself in a world that isn’t her own.
Larchfield is easy to fall into. Clark is an incredibly talented writer, who evokes 1930’s and draws the reader in from the present day. Her characters are well-crafted, and the story flows beautifully.
I’m not entirely certain what happened at the end. Was it real, or was it all inside Dora’s head? Perhaps Clark meant for it to be ambiguous. I think I’ll choose to believe it was real – whether it happened inside Dora’s head or not is an entirely different matter.
Larchfield is due out at the end of March.