Book review: Larchfield by Polly Clark

There is an old writing cliché which I have always deplored: show, don't tell. It is a false dichotomy in the first place, since good writing is always polyphonic. There are times where telling is apposite, times when showing is appropriate, times when inference, irony, hectoring, lecturing, hinting and lilting are also what the story needs. But the sad truth is that the cliché is a cliché because it contains a truth, and this novel must be one of the most tell-y and telling I have read.

Polly Clark
Polly Clark

It was the winner of the MsLexia Prize, and comes endorsed by men like Louis de Bernières and Richard Ford. The author, Polly Clark, is a poet with several accolades and the Literature Programme Producer for Cove Park, Scotland’s International Artist Residency Centre, or so the paratextual jacket flaps inform me. But I must tell it as it is: it is not a work for which I would recommend a reader parting with money.

The novel has parallel protagonists: in the past, the poet WH Auden is taking up a schoolmaster post in Helensburgh, which indeed he did; at the titular Larchfield, one third Gormenghast and two-thirds St Custard’s of Molesworth fame. In the present, Dora, a “brainy lexicographer”, and a poet to boot, from Oxford, has come to live in Helensburgh with her older partner. She is expecting her first child; Auden is obsessed with a handsome yet pock-marked lad at the railway station, and has to deal with the headmaster’s wife and her problems, and the sinister and sadistic Jessop. Dora has to cope with their upstairs neighbours, the Divines, who want the whole house reunited and whom Dora suspects are behind the frequent visits from health services and the gossip she is an “unfit mother”. But – tra-la! – Dora manages to find a bottle thrown by Auden into the sea, and can time-warp into his life, where he dispenses sage advice.

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Chapters alternate between Dora and Wystan, with the curious and inelegant exception at the end where Dora’s husband is brought on to the stage. The overall effect of the novel is one of immense smugness. When Dora’s friends arrive we are told that one is “now a successful academic and scholar of the moderns”, a second had “abandoned poetry to become a successful playwright” and the third “was the poet of the group, uncompromisingly eking out an existence on the fringes of fashionable literary London”. (None of them, inter alia, ever appears in the novel again, so why they are even there is something of a mystery). Barely a page goes by without some stale and threadbare language. Shocking is usually “deeply”; people hiss instead of whisper, the baby perpetually gurgles, cuts are always deep. Nobody speaks like a human being, not even the kind of human beings that inhabit soi-disant and pseudo-literary novels – “Jamie! Thank you ! I mustn’t be stung by a wasp. Dr Boyce said it could make me very ill indeed.” This is twinned with a kind of needless poeticism: “a nest of wire and tubes” referring to a complicated cot; “one creature-combination of mother and baby” to describe the simple act of holding a child. It also must be the winner of my novel of the year to overuse italics. If you can’t make it meaningful, it always looks good at a slant.

I suppose we are meant to take Dora’s narrative as a kind of Sophie Hannah exercise in “is she mad or is she in danger”. The sections about Auden have a dreamily gothic quality, but are rooted in a sensibility he did not share. The book has a finger on the scales the whole time: the Divines are obviously hellish. That is not the least of its blatancies: a house called Paradise, Helensburgh snipped to Hel, a child called Beatrice and a dog called Virgil? Perhaps the publishers could have put “NOTICE: SYMBOLISM” in the margins.

The sad thing is that there is some decent writing here. A novel solely about a premature child and post-natal depression in a strange West Coast town might have been fine. A non-fiction book about a curious period in the life of Auden would have been interesting. Together, they are not. There is also a sour undercurrent. Dora’s dastardly neighbours are, of course, churchgoers. They are, of course, hypocrites. This presumption that the Kirk is a crucible of sourness is, in my experience, neither true nor fair. I doubt very much indeed if she would have written this novel with the nasty upstairs neighbours being of Islamic or Jewish faith.

When Dora manages to write again we are given an extract of her work. It turns out to be a piece from Polly Clark’s collection, Farewell My Lovely. What is a reader to make of this? An act of strange egotism or a piece of laziness, in not giving Dora her own voice? A self-referential wink or a ludicrous puff? If a reader has £15 quid to spare: buy Auden’s Collected Longer Poems.

Larchfield, by Polly Clark, Riverrun, £14.99