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…
‘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.