There are some books that catch your unawares when you least expect it. They take you away to a world you aren’t sure will be your ‘cup of tea’ and captivate you, they make you want to read the whole book in a sitting or two whilst also wanting to make every single page count. You are bereft when the book finishes and you can’t stop talking about it at any opportunity you get. ‘The Proof of Love’ by Catherine Hall is a book that did just that. I admit that if someone had said ‘read a book about a Cambridge mathematician who escapes the academic world by voluntarily farming in the lake district in the 1970’s’ I probably would have said, very politely, ‘I’m not sure that’s my thing’. However I couldn’t have been more wrong by this exceptional novel which will be flying into my top five books of the year so far no questions.
Spencer Little arrives in a rural village in the Lake District by bicycle on the hottest day of the sweltering summer of 1976 looking for nothing more than work in exchange for lodging and board. He decides to try the first farm he comes across, Mirethwaite, and the home of the Dodd’s family. Here he becomes a kind of addition to a rather interesting family consisting of the young and loveably precocious ten year old Alice, her subdued mother Mary and the head of the household, and rather frightening, Hartley, a man fuelled by alcohol and anger. It’s an interesting dynamic to a tale about rural life and ‘incomers’ as well as one of just why Spencer is escaping from the very start and one that becomes more compelling as it goes.
“It was hard to get used to Hartley’s new, jovial manner. Together with the beer, it made Spencer feel disorientated, as if he had stepped into another world, somewhere far away from either the competition of Cambridge or the tensions of Mirethwaite. Now Hartley was going over to the bar and ordering three large glasses of whisky. He brought them back to the table, his cheeks flushed, eyes bright under dark eyebrows.”
As well as there being the family dynamic in ‘The Proof of Love’ Catherine Hall also introduces the villagers and village life. She gets the mixture of slightly claustrophobic and rather remote spot on. Add to it this sweltering heat and you can really get a sense of atmosphere. She also makes sheep farming and village fetes rather exciting which I think deserves a mention. I was honestly on the edge of my seat during a scene involving the removal of a ram’s horns. Not something I would have expected to ever hear myself say. In creating the sense of a real village one of Hall’s other great achievements is her characters, one of my favourites after Alice, was the elderly spinster Dorothy Wilkinson. Dorothy in a way becomes the middle man of the story and gives it a peripheral view on occasion, who many people think is ‘a witch’ and yet is one of the few people to befriend this new outsider Spencer. Hall as an author also manages to encapsulate the gossip and one up man ship caused by boredom and small minds in the women of the town, the men are too often in the pub and not seen so often, in fact it’s these very things that give the book its great twists as it moves forward.
“Oh, leave him alone,’ said the lean, well-dressed woman on her right. Unlike the other women she was wearing make-up, her lips painted an immaculate red. As he turned towards Spencer he caught a whiff of strong perfume. ‘There’s plenty of time for him to get involved in the wretched fete if he wants.’ She flashed him a glossy smile. ‘Although I’d think carefully about it, if I were you. It seems to get people rather caught up in it.
Margaret bristled. ‘Oh Valerie. I just thought it would be a good way for him to make friends. He cant spend all his time up at the farm with Hartley Dodds and that brother of his.’
‘And Mary,’ said Valerie, raising a perfectly arched eyebrow. ‘We mustn’t forget her.’
She was looking at Spencer with something which seemed like amusement. Avoiding her eyes, he looked out of the window. A farmer was sitting on a tractor, cutting grass in the field beyond the vicarage. He wished they could exchange places.”
Catherine does something very clever with Spencer. He does both alienate and ingratiate himself in village life. He builds a lovely relationship with the young Alice Dodds, whilst also trying to keep everyone at arms length. Ask him anything about Cambridge and he shuts down, this off course adds a second strand to the tale of just why he left and encourages us to read on. It’s like a story of a man’s struggle to reinvent himself as the man who he really is. You will of course probably need to read the book, and indeed you should, in order to get what I mean and see the brilliance of Hall’s writing as she achieves that.
“He was, he thought, quite unlike the person who had arrived on his bicycle a month before. He felt excitement stir in his stomach, a rumble of possibility, as if he were emerging from a cocoon. The prospect was both daunting and a thrill.”
As I mentioned I didn’t think that this would be a book that was my sort of thing but I was proven 100% wrong as Catherine Hall weaved me into a subtle and sublime tale that shocks its reader in quick succession half way through and within pages gives the reader a real foreboding of what might be coming for the final 100 pages. You want to read on and you daren’t all at once. I wonder if it’s that factor that has caused the ‘Sarah Waters meets Daphne Du Maurier’ quote. It’s a big hype for any author to be compared to these two novelists, and one I don’t think it’s fair to call. In fact I think Catherine Hall deserves to simply be called a brilliant author in her own right.
I can’t hide the fact that I loved ‘The Proof of Love’. It’s a book that gently weaves you in. You become both an ‘outcomer’ and one of the locals. You are part of the loneliness and isolation of Spencer as well as the gossiping heart of the community, part of the mystery and part of the suspicions. It’s a very subtly clever book, it doesn’t show off the fact that it’s a rare and wonderful book at any point, but I can assure you it is. 10/10
This book was kindly sent by the publisher.
I should mention the fact that I was first made aware of this book through Cornflower Books and then ‘Fiction Uncovered’ (I have also read ‘Night Waking’ by Sarah Moss – review soon - which is on the shortlist and well worth a read, so I may now have to read them all) and you can see a wonderful, and much shorter – sorry, endorsement from one of its judges Sarah Crown, who is also the editor of the Guardian Books website, which I thought I should share…
I couldn’t agree with her more and urge you all to read ‘The Proof of Love’ and let it slowly and silently creep up on you unawares. I am going to have to get Catherine Hall’s debut novel ‘Days of Grace’ very, very soon. Has anyone else read either of Catherine Hall’s books? Which book has completely surprised you with its brilliance, when you were least expecting it, of late?