Saturday, 10 November 2012

Fiction Review: 'The Changeling' by Robin Jenkins

This is an old-fashioned book, but that’s not a complaint. Written in the mid-1950’s, it describes a world almost as remote and alien to us now as the medieval period or the Regency. Superficially there are resemblances - suburban houses, family life, schools with teachers and pupils, ‘difficult’ estates - but below the surface lurk strangenesses which are difficult to comprehend from a distance of fifty-something years. The style is odd, too. Modern novels insist on rigid points of view, so that the author stays firmly within the perspective of a single character for a time, before a clearly marked shift to another. Here, the author jumps from head to head with abandon, now telling us the thoughts and feelings of one character, leaping to another for three sentences and then on to yet another. So, this is not the easiest book to read, in many ways.

The plot revolves around a pupil and teacher at an east Glasgow school. Charles Forbes, the idealistic teacher, decides to take his star pupil, Tom Curdie, a slum child, on holiday with his family of wife, two children and mother-in-law. It will, he thinks, show the boy the possibilities of a better life. How this generous plan gradually unravels forms the essence of the story, although for modern readers the vignette of post-war life is at least as interesting as the story itself.

The characters are mostly finely drawn, particularly Charles and Tom, and it’s a pity that the slum-dwellers, namely Tom’s own family and his friends, are not much more than caricatures, simply wheeled on for comic or shocking effect. Gillian, Charles’s daughter, has a difficult role, being initially a jealous and spiteful thorn in Tom’s side, and later a sympathetic and compassionate helper, and the transition isn’t entirely convincing. The two women of the family, Mary, Charles' wife, and her mother, struck me as the most realistic, being a nice mixture of common sense, self-interest and prejudice which I found wholly believable.

The setting, a peaceful holiday resort and the gentle pursuits of the family, which the author brilliantly evokes, form a stark contrast to the inevitable disaster which concludes the story. It's obvious almost from the start that things are not going to end well, but still when the final moment comes, it's surprising and shocking. It's also a bit of a contrivance, depending on a whole series of coincidental events, as well as Gillian's somewhat implausible change of heart. This is in the nature of fiction, of course, to call on unlikely events, but I can't help feeling that a great deal of grief could have been avoided if some of the central characters had simply sat down and talked honestly to each other at key moments, and this strikes me as a major flaw.

On the other hand, perhaps reticence was too much a part of their characters, or perhaps it was just part of the social fabric of the time that adults didn't talk openly to children, or to each other, sometimes. Perhaps the gulf between classes was too great to be bridged under even the most favourable circumstances. And of course, it’s perfectly possible that the half century of distance makes it impossible for me to truly empathise with the characters and their dilemmas. Still, I felt it was a weakness, so despite the overall quality of the writing, that keeps it to three stars for me.

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