Thursday 16 May 2013

Laugh ‘til you cry, cry ‘til you laugh: The Small Hours by Susie Boyt

No good deed goes unpunished. That is the dark conclusion of Boyt’s brilliant tragicomedy of charitable intentions and damaged histories. Heroine Harriet Mansfield is a blousy woman of big emotions and large scale, strong in intention, rich in feeling, emphatic in speech, full-bodied both literally and spiritually. She wants to open a nursery in a poncy part of town and conjure up a perfect girlsworld of harvest baskets, under-fives woodworking sessions and dress-up games, far from the twinge of WiFi and the smell of crisps. Her desire is to be Dream Proxy Mommy to a cohort of privileged little girls who’ll remember the institution for the rest of their (consequently) happy lives. It does not take the godfather of psychoanalysis to work out that this is because she herself had an unhappy childhood, but the forensic way in which Boyt explores Harriet’s karmically restitutional urge is sheer genius.

Using money from an inheritance and wordlessly encouraged by her enigmatic shrink – Boyt is brilliant on the agonies of successful psychotherapy in the early pages of the novel – Harriet opens the nursery. It’s a success: to break even you only need half a dozen pupils if they’re all rich. Then stuff happens.

Though providing much delight, in both sincerely heart-warming and satirically keen ways, the nursery is not the locus of the meaningful action. That occurs on the periphery and concerns Harriet’s parents and brother. The crucial, toxic events of Harriet’s life actually happened in the past and it’s an indication of Boyt’s excellence that the reader, so caught up in the jolly romp of Harriet-the-schoolmistress, does not notice the foreboding elements encroaching from the outskirts until it’s too late. 

The Small Hours, as the title indicates, is about what happens in the gaps between our survival strategies, the long nights when the nursery is not full of children, the weekends when Harriet’s professional acumen is unneeded, the intervals between lessons and the moments before and after grand endeavours. It explores the generational after-effects of abuse, the never-ending fractal of consequences, the way adults betray children – and, of course, the positive way in which damaged adults vow to nurture future generations.

And at the same time it’s really funny.

The psychological precision of this novel is breathtaking. Boyt’s greatest accomplishment is her creation of Harriet, an eccentric, humorous and perceptive adult who is humiliated by the cruelty of others yet whose own sincerity remains undiminished. Harriet understands her own pathology and sees herself as a wounded healer, a pained Pied Piper leading Holland Park’s children out of the darkness and into the light. Her striving nature, friendliness, energy, sensuality, emotional sensitivity and crushed yet accurate intelligence make her a heroine amongst children. Somehow, they can tell that she is benign. Yet her desire to give love overwhelms her more circumspect adult peers. She is not afraid of embarrassing herself and yet, funnily, this largeness of soul embarrasses others. And so it goes on in a never-ending loop of delicious comic irony.

Apart from the nice staff members at the nursery many of the adults in the Small Hours are spiritually ugly, emotionally mean and morally poor, particularly those who’ve benefited from the greatest financial privilege and exhibit the most outward stylishness. Being two-faced themselves, they mistrust Harriet’s transparency. She in turn is acutely aware of the way her grand candour makes the timid feel awkward and the asinine feel superior. And their perverted and agonising misinterpretation of her successfully makes her self-conscious and therefore ungainly.

Part of the clever pain of The Small Hours is watching Harriet ask plainly honest questions, offer love and seek answers only to have her wholesomeness met with irritation, contempt and aversion by those who are just as damaged yet far more defensive than she is. As I read the novel I kept thinking, Harriet thinks of herself as huge and desperate and clumsy. I bet, if I were to meet her, she would be the opposite. Harriet’s brother, an uptight tightwad, has projected his own trauma onto her; everything she does riles him, because he is riled by his own past, of which she is a reminder. Because he never shows his emotions, when she shows a tiny bit of hers they seem elephantine by comparison. 

And I haven’t even started on the mother. Or the dad.

Finally, every sentence of this novel is at once a bitingly witty summation and a deadpan indictment of the brutality of life. If I quoted the sharpest bits I’d wind up reproducing the whole thing. I haven’t, deliberately. Go and buy it.

The Small Hours by Susie Boyt is published by Virago but why don't you go straight to Amazon instead?