Posted in Book Review, Books I have read, Five Star Reads

The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley

Historical Fiction 5*s
Historical Fiction

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.


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

40 thoughts on “The Go-Between – L.P. Hartley

  1. O I so I loved this book when I read it …in sixth form ! I hear there was a TV adaptation recently which has prompted quite a few people to ( re) read. The original film which had Julie Christie in it was really good too.

    It full of sexual tension isn’t it ? I did The Shrimp and The Anenome ( by him) for O Level ….which really shows how much things have changed as I don’t think that would be set now !

    I have enjoyed reading all the reviews and thinking about it again .


    1. Yes, I’m surprised I didn’t come across it at school as it appears to have been a set book for many of my generation but better late than never! The bit of the TV adaption I saw was very good (I didn’t watch the end as I knew I wanted to read the book)
      It was just so engaging and maybe as an adult it is easier to feel compassion for all of the characters – although I’m still on the fence a little about Marian!


  2. Great review, Cleo. I’ve always loved that opening sentence. When I read Atonement I remember thinking that Ian McEwan owed a huge debt to L. P. Hartley for his story and had not carried it off anywhere near as well.


    1. I’m torn Susan, Atonement is one of those stories I love but I fell in love with this one too – I think I need to re-read Atonement soon to make a proper comparison although since The Go-Between came first…


  3. I’ve always thought this was such a great premise for a book, Cleo. And you’re right about that opening line – mesmerising! I’m so glad you enjoyed both the plot and the writing style.


  4. So glad you enjoyed it! One of my all-time favourites – I read it again and again in my twenties and you’ve inspired me to revisit it soon. For me, this is far and away his best, but I also loved The Shrimp and the Anemone…


  5. Hi Cleo,

    Not part of my exam reading syllabus, I have sadly neglected the classics ever since and have only recently had the yearning, inspired by some of the excellent reviews I have encountered on my blog-hopping trips, to explore a few of them very soon!

    Many of the contemporary novelists write well, however any book which can have you wanting to read it as slowly as possible, in order to savour every individual word and nuance, tells a story which will stay with you forever.

    The ‘language’ of many of the classics does just this, as well as being a pleasure to read, as a temporary escape from many of the ‘modernisms’ of today’s writing.

    Glad you enjoyed ‘The Go-Between’ and thanks for the glowing recommendation 🙂



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