What I thought:
This beautifully and poetically written book is set in the small town of Helensburgh, Scotland in the dual time-frame of now (Dora) and 1930 (Wystan). Dora Fielding is a newly-married poet from Oxford and moves to the rather insular town of Helensburgh for her husband Kit’s job, while pregnant with their first child. Thrown into motherhood, and newly jobless and friendless in this small town by the sea, that seems to treat newcomers with not just suspicion but utter contempt, Dora finds herself becoming so isolated that she fears she has lost all sense of her former self and struggles to work out who she really is now. However, when she learns that famous and respected poet W.H. Auden (Wystan) also used to live in Helensburgh, Dora becomes fascinated by finding out more about him.
Back in 1930, Wystan is having his own problems with being an outsider when appointed as a teacher at the school Larchfield in Helensburgh, and worse than that an English one who dresses eccentrically and attracts rumours of being a pervert (or, homosexual to you and I) which is something that Wystan himself is trying to come to terms with in an age when it was not only not acceptable but illegal. Preferring a pen and paper to racing around a rugby field, Wystan is ostracised by most of his peers and finds solace in the friendship of a dying middle-aged woman and a private affair with a local man.
It isn’t clear, other than the themes of loneliness and unacceptance and survival, how Dora and Wystan will be thrown together until about half way through the book. Forced into her own fantasy to escape the reality of bullying neighbours and her loss of any sense of who she used to be, Dora forms a friendship with Wystan that allows her to escape her stifling and frightening reality. Apparently, the author based Dora’s experience on her own, having also relocated to Helensburgh with a small baby and anti-English feeling following her around and the isolation and frustration could be clearly felt through the pages.
It was obvious to me, reading this book, that author Polly Clark is a poet as the narrative is lyrical and tender and what felt, for me, a gentle and quiet read despite the themes: loneliness mental health, courage, bullying among them. It certainly didn’t feel like a debut novel and it captivated me from the start with its strong sense of empathy and humanity.
Larchfield was a book I felt I wanted to savour and not attempt to read quickly due to my ever-increasing TBR pile. It was a book I looked forward to getting back to when I wasn’t reading it, not because it was a great thriller or mystery and I needed to know what was happening, but because I was happy in the company of the characters and the gorgeous prose.
Have you read Larchfield? What did you think?