Set in Formby soon after the end of the Second World War, Harriet Said is one of the darkest and most disturbing fictional books I have ever read, and those of you who read my reviews will note that I tend towards the dark side! There is something very frightening about young girls, and Harriet and her nameless friend our narrator, are just thirteen and fourteen years old at a time when we imagine that generation to be cloaked in innocence.
At the beginning of the summer holidays our narrator, having returned from boarding school is awaiting her older friend’s return from her holiday in Wales, but when Harriet returns she fears their bond is not as strong as their previous time together, one where they flirted with the Italian prisoners of war close to Formby beach and then Harriet dictated their escapades to be written in their shared diary. Harriet is painted as the more attractive, confident and daring of the two girls and as the title alludes to, the one who dreams up all their schemes for amusement. Harriet’s father is fierce, his wife subservient and Harriet herself is pretty much left to her own devices. Both girls go out in the evening most often to the beach where our narrator converses with Mr Biggs, who the girls have nicknamed ‘The Tsar’.
The contrast between their assumed innocence and the knowing way they engage the middle-aged Mr Biggs attention, baiting him, spying on him and his wife all the while determined that this summer they will top all their previous adventures. We know that this pair have transgressed in the past, this is the very reason why the younger of the two was sent to boarding school. But, this book isn’t all about what their plans are for Mr Biggs, it is about the almost obsessional relationship between the girls who seem to crave each other’s attention whilst vying for supremacy, for while Harriet is said to be the leader, the turn this book takes makes that seem far from certain.
If you are looking for a book with likeable characters you can relate to, don’t choose this book where just about everyone has a deep character flaw or at best odd. This is despite the fact that it is Harriet who shows this side the most, in the way she sweetly behaves in front of her elders, charms even those in the village who distrust her and patronises her mother without her even realising it. This is a girl who will turn up at her friend’s house and converse with her mother, a woman who surely is aware that this girl has been the cause of trouble in the past, even if it isn’t of the magnitude of the here and now! And no, I haven’t broken my only rule of reviewing, this is not a spoiler as we know from the beginning that something happens which the girls are covering up, what and why is not revealed until the end of this slim book, I thought I knew but, as usual I was a little off the beaten track!
I was finally prompted to buy my copy of this book after reading Ali’s wonderful review on her blog; Heavenali, and have since found out that Beryl Bainbridge wrote this book after being inspired by newspaper stories of a murder committed in Christchurch New Zealand in 1954 by two teenaged girls. This was the author’s first book, rejected because of its content and not published until 1972 when she was already the darling of the literary world. I am now looking forward to reading more by this author. For those of you wondering how such a dark book can have such a beautiful cover, there is a scene at a fairground which neatly highlights how young these two girls actually are, yet youth doesn’t always infer innocence.
If anyone can recommend me another book by this author, I’d really appreciate it.