There’s an interesting collision in Ruth Thomas’s second novel between comedy and reality. In her award-winning short stories, too, she demonstrates this same quiet humour that looks at the world from an angle that is ever so slightly askew yet somehow also comforting.
The Home Corner By Ruth Thomas
Faber, 288pp, £12.99
She also likes to focus on details that establish the authenticity of the world. The collision arises because cosy quirkiness and authenticity don’t necessarily sit easily with the other. So the trick occurs in the blending of the two, as seamlessly as possible.
The authenticity of 19-year-old Luisa McKenzie’s world resides in the primary school where she has taken a job as a classroom assistant. But even here, that slightly left-field perspective of Luisa’s renders the children almost more intelligible than the teachers, with their performance appraisal charts, reports and aphorisms. There’s a reason why Luisa sees the world around her this way, though – she has been damaged by betrayal and disappointment. Not only was her friend Stella Muir someone who used her and belittled her, but the boy she idolised in art class, Ed McRae, used her, too, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and an early abortion.
These experiences knocked Luisa off her path towards good exam results and a proper career. They have demoralised her and hurt her ability to trust. The children are easier for her, in a way, because they aren’t bigger or more powerful than she is. Luisa has lost utterly any sense of her own power, and she only gets it back when the sighting of a certain couple in the woods, much later in the story, prompts her finally to speak out and take action. Even then, she is disappointed in the results, but she has become resistant to life’s disappointments.
Luisa doesn’t just suffer the pain of innocence corrupted, she suffers the ruin of her idealism. Thomas’s novel is about getting some of that idealism back, and at that level, it can be touching in places. The relationship between Luisa and her mother is particularly important, and although her mother is really only a sketched-out character, hovering on the sidelines, this is probably a realistic representation of teenage daughter-mother relations.
The humour of Thomas’s book has a shadowy presence too, often glimmering above the surface yet managing to render some of this world slightly unreal. At times, though, Luisa’s gentle humour is so down-trodden, so powerless, that it becomes hard to believe in her. Even walking through the woods with her schoolchildren on a day out becomes an excruciating trial because her very clothes are betraying and belittling her: “The skirt I was wearing that day, the tight purple hobble skirt I’d bought when I was with Stella once in Topshop, was a particularly stupid choice of clothing. The hem of it had already got covered in mud and I was having to take smaller steps than you should on a walk like that. I just seemed doomed, that summer, to turn something that should have been easy, into something complicated.”
This is a more complex moment than at first appears – the skirt is weighing her down, but it’s not just its tightness, it’s also the fact that it was bought on a trip with the treacherous Stella, suggesting possibly also that it was never really the more compliant Luisa’s choice anyway, but Stella’s. It tells us a great deal about Luisa’s state of mind as well as about her behaviour in that friendship. But it also points to that disturbed and difficult psychological state in which she’s imprisoned now, and yet which somehow never quite reaches the level of ugliness such a condition might induce in her.
Thomas has given us a much more palatable story than that kind of depiction might render. Her prose style is simple, almost childlike, and the build-up of Luisa’s past story and current situation is slow and careful, as if also for children. The emotions at the heart of it are complex and adult, though, which do make Luisa’s exposure to a harsher adult world a sadder experience. Ultimately, though, the humour dilutes some of the melancholy without making Luisa herself less powerless. Perhaps we should celebrate that Luisa retains the niceness she has at the start. But I couldn’t help wishing that Thomas could have been truer to the uglier aspects of what Luisa was suffering, taken a risk with her readers. Because otherwise, this tale feels just a little too safe, a little too comforting, to be true.