Thursday, 27 January 2011

Veggie Books: Good Behaviour

I'm back into reading again. Just before Christmas I was really sick of books, being in the throes of finishing one myself. But now the urge to read the pile that accumulated on my bedside table has kicked in and I'm making progress through it.

I'm not sure Jack Vance needs an antidote, but if he did it might well be Molly Keane's Good Behaviour, written in 1981 although it feels like a much older book, and reprinted under the Virago Modern Classics Imprint. The little icon on the spine for VMC is a bitten apple. Good one. Veggiebox approval there.

It's a book with no time for pleasantries. Aroon St Charles is a pretty unlikeable character. She gets accused of killing her mother in the first chapter, but by the end of the novel we can understand what's made her the way she is, and I loved the honesty of the unspoken pressures at work on her. It's such a sharp, painful book, too clear in its depiction of straitjacketed upper class family life for the moments of great humour to do more than lift it temporarily out of despair.

I think people might describe my own books the same way, perhaps, if I'm really lucky. So obviously this kind of style would appeal to me. Don't pay any attention to the awful pink dress on the cover. It's not a fluffy book. It's brilliant.

Here's a fruity bit where Aroon is spending the last days of summer with her brother Hubert and his best friend Richard (whom she is in love with) before the boys leave for University. They've just been dancing to the gramophone after dinner:

With Richard, with the music, with the pallor in the windows and the darkness in the room, my happiness was restored to me, sounder, more assured than it had been in the morning. I took it with me to bed. Next morning, when I woke, I could almost look at it, it was so real.

In those last days the boys kept me with them continually. Each day of early September was more perfect than the last. Grapes were ripe in the battered vinery - those muscatels Mummie knew how to thin and prune. Butterflies - fritillaries, peacocks - spread their wings on scabious, sedum, and buddleia, waiting heavily, happily for death to come. We sat among them, eating grapes, the sun on our backs.


Frances Garrood said...

I LOVED that book! I think it was her best. She was ahead of her time, wasn't she.

Aliya Whiteley said...

I'm so glad to find someone else who's heard of her! Yeah, just brilliant. I haven't read any of her others yet though. I was just flicking through other reviews and somebody described her as very similar to Evelyn Waugh. I think that's quite accurate.

Tim Stretton said...

I've never heard of this, Aliya. A protagonist called Aroon St Charles invites immediate scepticism, but the extract you quote is beautiful!

Andy said...

I'm almost done with Let Me In by John Ajvide Lindquist. It's a happy little dysfunctional vampire story.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Tim - it sounds like it's going to be terrible hoity-toity nonsense, with the Aroons and the Mummies, but it's actually a really brutal book.

Andy - Anything that can be described as a 'happy little dysfunctional vampire' book sounds right up my street. I loved the film (Let The Right One In) - didn't realise there was a book first.

Frances Garrood said...

I think she wrote several novels in her (relative) youth under the name of Farrell(?). The later two or three were the best. There's one other brilliant (later) one, but I can't remember which it is. But your post has reminded me to read her again. Thanks!

Alis said...

This quoted passage is wonderful. I love the way she goes from the general 'those last days' to the highly specific 'fritillaries, peacocks' 'those muscatels Mummie knew how to thin' - gives the whole thing a feeling of both hanging timelessly in the warm, late summer air and of being perfectly, minutely realised. But would I enjoy the book? I shall have to read it.

Aliya Whiteley said...

Isn't it wonderful? Usually the passages that contain the fruit and veg aren't the best, to be honest - this is a rare exception. I'm sure you'd enjoy the book.