Bleakly Hall – Elaine Di Rollo

I have often spouted about the fact that whether you enjoy a book can be down to everything being aligned right, your mood, the weather, the seasons and other such things. Some people doubt this; I however think it is the truth. One thing I do forget about is that why you are reading a book can sometimes affect your thoughts on it too. ‘Bleakly Hall’, by Elaine Di Rollo is one such book. It is one that as I read it, I was utterly under its spell and yet because I was reading it for The Readers Summer Book Group I knew I would have to talk about it and so think I might have over analysed it and overly questioned it meaning in hindsight I traipsed all over its sparkle. Let me explain further…

Vintage Books, paperback, 2012, fiction, 360 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

‘Bleakly Hall’ is really a book of two halves (which sounds like I am starting with a cliché) one half of the story is that of the people working and staying at a hydropath after the First World War, Monty and Ada having been two female comrades on the frontlines, Monty having been a nurse and Ada an ambulance driver.

Monty also nursed with a woman called Sophia who died yet left an old score to settle with a Captain Foxley who Monty learns resides at ‘Bleakly Hall’ where Ada now works, the narrative switches between Monty coming to the hall to confront Foxley, but getting beguiled and sidetracked by staff and the likes while there, and the story of the war unfolding to reveal what happened to Sophia.

What is wonderful about this novel is also what in the end causes me to pick some faults in it. I loved the fact there was a mystery to the novel, what on earth had happened to Sophia, how was Foxley involved and why on earth did Monty have such a need to settle this old score? I loved the characters, Monty and Ada in particular but also Dr Slack (who had such an appropriate name I could almost feel Elaine Di Rollo joining me in a wry smile as I read on) and even the odd Blackwood brothers, the good one and the bad. I also really enjoyed the humour in the novel; it was thoroughly entertaining and occasionally laugh out loud funny.

‘Monty followed the doctor’s gaze. She did indeed look dreadful. Her cap was awry on her head, her hair limp and bedraggled. She had a surprised look on her face, as though still stunned by disembodied buttocks, shoving between anonymous thighs like a naked gardener wrestling with a reluctant wheelbarrow.’

It also provides a real lightness against the horrors of the war and the effects it leaves on people, which through the back story of Sophia and through some of the issues with the characters in the present, like Foxley who we learn is suffering post traumatic stress disorder, is incredibly moving and sometimes rather harrowing.

‘The first man they reached was dead. It was impossible to say why, as he seemed simply to be sleeping, his face peaceful beneath the smoky sky. The second and third were also dead, one having bled to death of a wound to the neck. He lay as though on a rust-covered carpet, a circle of his own blood sinking into the earth around him. The other had been shot through the head.’

So if I liked these two strands of the book, and the prose and style, where did it not work for me? Well firstly as I said I did really enjoy the book however, without giving any spoilers, there are some wonderful almost fairytale like set pieces in both the modern narrative and indeed some of the non WWI flashback sequences, such as one involving a hat being rescued from a bear compound, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading throughout. Yet because these have a sense of the surreal, slightly farcical and magic this feeling is at complete odds with the utter horror which we witness through all the characters memories of war, these in turn making the book seem a little disjointed. It’s enjoyable but becomes implausible.

Now I know not all books should be realistic, I don’t expect them to be and enjoy escapism of all types, but the world they create be it one we know or not should feel fully formed or cohesive and yet the sections of the book in the war don’t match the ones in ‘Bleakly Hall’, yet Bleakly Hall’s whole story wouldn’t exist without the war, Monty knowing Ada and wanting to confront Captain Foxley. I hope all this makes sense because in over analysing it for a book club I think I may have over thought about it.

I think had I not been reading ‘Bleakly Hall’ as a book to dissect and discuss I would have enjoyed it a lot more. It’s a funny, dark and moving story brimming with wonderful set pieces and larger than life characters. It’s a book that entertains you and while it has a few flaws here and there (and not many books are flaw free) takes you to a slightly bonkers and bizarre world. Some books should simply be read and enjoyed, not dissected, this is one of them.

Has anyone else read this or Elaine Di Rollo’s other novel? I would love to hear your thoughts on the book, I will certainly read more. If you would like to hear the author discussing the book you can on this week’s episode of The Readers Summer Book Club here.

11 Comments

Filed under Elaine Di Rollo, Review, The Readers Summer Book Club, Vintage Books

11 responses to “Bleakly Hall – Elaine Di Rollo

  1. JanaNav

    I enjoyed the book, but my first thought was “Is it meat, or is it cake?” (a quote from a George Carlin comedy routine which is hilarious btw). I also thought of it as a cross between the two movies “The Road to Wellville” and “The English Patient”. Two great movies, but oh so different. I’m so glad that I knew nothing about the book before starting it and will look forward to hearing the podcast now that I’ve read it.

    • I like how you asked if it was meat or if it was cake and I felt like it was half and half in all honesty, which makes a ncie meal, but only if its in the right order and served just right. Wow, that analogy went a little further than I expected.

  2. Interesting review. You’ve introduced me to a new writer here. I’ll look forward to reading both of her books.

    • Glad this review didn’t put you off as I would never want to do that especially as I did really like it a lot. I just wanted to be fair to it and explain how the way I read it effected me/it.

  3. Laura Caldwell

    I loved the war parts and I loved the way the author wrote about the characters, including Captain Foxley. I disliked the setting (ridiculous-should have been an old hotel or school, maybe?); hated anything about the waters, nozzles, douches, etc; and the zoo was just dumb. Although I have read some stories set in the trenches of WWI, this one conveyed the horror and emotions wonderfully (at least I think it did, having not been there myself.) What a mixed bag this book was! I did read it all the way through and I am glad that I did, but the scenes in the past are the reason that I did. BTW I am LOVING “Ready Player One!”

    • I didn’t think the setting was ridiculous, because I am from a town called Matlock where they have lots of these buildings which were incredibly popular for a time, I think for me it was more that the treatments going on there distracted, I think that is fair to say?

  4. I couldn’t agree more. We read a book or watch a movie through a framework of our experiences and feelings and background and opinions, which is why some people react strongly to parts of a story while it doesn’t have any affect on others. People aren’t passive vehicles sitting down receiving messages as written – we are active readers who use the text, taking what we want or need to from it. *stepping off soapbox now*

    I was at a party last week talking about Wolf Hall. I absolutely hated it, but the woman I was talking to was reading it while she was travelling through London and found the match of place and book enhanced her enjoyment of both place and book. If she had read it at home she might have been just as irritated as I was and if I’d read it while seeing the places written about I might have enjoyed it more.

    • Hahaha I liked your soapbox rant frankly Belinda, I know exactly what you mean though sometimes with certain books I can be quite passive and still really enjoy the reading experience.

      I loved Wolf Hall, I am not sure it had anything to do with where I read it though. More food for thought.

  5. Pingback: Can a Book Group Be Bad For a Book? | Savidge Reads

  6. I too felt like the Bleakly Hall spa details kind of detracted from the overall feel. It was a set piece that was perhaps too detailed-it was necessary to the story, yes, but details distracted from the other set pieces. I was put in mind of Kundera’s Farewell Party which is also inextricable from the spa environment but doesn’t allow the treatments to distract from the people who the story was actually about.

  7. Pingback: Review: Bleakly Hall by Elaine di Rollo | Alex In Leeds

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