THIS book is many things: a tale of an English couple trying to settle in France and a love story by a surviving partner that occasionally makes the reader feel like an uncomfortable observer.
A Corner Of Paradise - Brian Thompson
Chatto & Windus, £16.99
Brian Thompson, already a novelist and autobiographer, is looking for a way of sending his daily thoughts to his late wife. He tries to find “an empty cottage somewhere to which I could send you daily cards and letters” because he has no forwarding address.
Thompson is living again in Oxford, where he and Elizabeth had their first kiss in a supermarket car park before marrying in 1973. Much of this second marriage took place there, apart from fraught trips to France. Their union included seven children, four of them Elizabeth’s. Her father was an admiral from an upper-class family. She had “come out” at court. Brian came from “somewhere else”, as he puts it. He was a working-class Londoner. Oxford was very different: there “every house is crammed with good intentions and an unflinching belief in intellect”.
The book is sprinkled with such wry comments. He tells of turning up at the BBC for the first time with a script that he was offering for publication and discovering that a shirt and tie made him overdressed. That was perhaps less embarrassing than a friend who turned up in a sports jacket, tie and newly pressed flannels for his first day as a face worker at a colliery. His wife would not have made these social errors.
Both were writers to trade. Typical of Thompson’s tendency to put himself down is his assertion that they were not “ruthless enough to be writers of the first rank”. Asked by an English settler he met in France if he had any tertiary education, he replied that he had read English at Cambridge. “Oh dear, not a very good preparation for life,” was the reply. There were compensations. “We were, we hoped, that elusive quantity, a contented couple.”
More at Brian’s instigation than his wife’s, they bought a property in Dordogne. That was their Corner of Paradise, the book’s title – an ironic one, because it turned out to be a nightmare. It needed basic renovation and Brian discovered he was not able to do this himself. After initial coolness, his French neighbours helped him out with the simplest tasks. The journal that Elizabeth took with her to record her loftier thoughts for later publication ended up being used for reminders and phone numbers.
Elizabeth died of cancer in her late seventies. In her obituary in the Guardian she was described as having “an acute eye for the social absurdities of her class”, an ability which helped to make her eight books popular. For his part, Thompson writes with a style and a sense of humour that engages the reader and avoids self-indulgence.