I’m going to start with my overriding feeling – what a wonderful book, multi-layered, very English and an absolute delight to read! I really don’t know how I’ve got to this grand old age without anyone ever telling me that I should read, I don’t understand how I missed it but I’m very grateful for having tuned into part of the recent television adaptation which led me to its pages.
Of course I’d heard the opening line quoted and what a line it is! ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there’. A line that sets the reader up nearly as well as ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.’ So I turned the pages schizophrenically wanting to race ahead while slowing down to savour the wonderful prose, even better this is one of the best coming of age stories ever, better even than my favourite to date; Atonement by Ian McEwan.
As the book opens we meet Leo Coulston, a man in his sixties who has come across some belongings that have triggered a long repressed memories. He opens his diary, the diary he was keeping the year he went to Norfolk with his friend Marcus who lived at Brandham Hall in Norfolk. But first there are memories of the book itself, the object which first subjected Leo to ridicule but then in high regard amongst his school mates. The elderly Leo remembers his fascination with the zodiac, codes and magic before the trip itself that was to change the twelve year-old’s life forever.
At Brandham Hall Leo is at first petted by Marcus’s elder sister Marian who takes him shopping for some much-needed cooler clothes to combat the stultifying heat wave that Norfolk is experiencing. Like many a young boy, once Leo is suitably attired he becomes almost obsessive about recording the temperature which seems to keep on rising. With his friend laid up ill in bed Leo goes exploring and comes across neighbour and farmer Ted Burgess. Ted asks Leo to pass a message to Marian, and that is the start of his role as postman, Mercury and the Go-Between. Because as anyone except a naïve boy in 1900 would have realised, Leo is getting embroiled in a love affair, one that goes against the social mores of the time, especially as Marian is about to become engaged to the war-wounded Viscount Hugh Trimingham.
‘I had never met a lord before, nor had I ever expected to meet one. It didn’t matter what he looked like: he was a lord first, and a human being, with a face and limbs and body, long, long after.’
Needless to say Leo cottons on to some extent having been given an unsealed letter and tries to extricate himself from his role, but the lovers have no sympathy for his scruples. Both Ted and Marian use all the tricks at their disposal to keep him walking backwards and forwards delivering his messages in secret, and so the prose winds leisurely towards the dénouement and if that wasn’t enough, the simply heartbreaking epilogue…
This is an author who knows his craft with pitch perfect dialogue, not easy when the characters are pre-adolescent boys, a slowing down of pace when by rights the tension should be ratcheting up a notch, with many tableaux from the Edwardian era beautifully and evocatively spread out for the reader to lap up, I for one have never been so interested in a cricket match, and I doubt that I ever will be again.
This is a book that will haunt me for many years to come and is definitely a keeper, one day I will return to it and lap up the evocative prose and revel in a past where everything was indeed, very different.