The Girls by John Bowen
While I was still at school I went to the theatre a lot, and it was then that I discovered John Bowen, through a retelling of one of the mystery cycles called The Fall and Redemption of Man. I loved the play and saw it several times, and later OH, who was a then primary teacher, used a section of it as the basis for an improvised Christmas production with his class. There was also a television play in the '70s called Robin Redbreast, which was sort of The Wicker Man done right, with the wonderful Bernard Hepton (you may remember him as Toby Esterhase from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy...). Anyway, I found this book by chance, pounced when I saw who it was by, and had to read it immediately. It's the 1986 contribution to my Century of Books, which is a place where I'm unapologetically indulging my love of the obscure.
Subtitled "A story of village life", The Girls starts with high farce, an escaping pig in an English village, and gradually edges its way into black comedy, infidelity and worse. It's set in the village where Bowen lived, Tysoe in Warwickshire, and shows a great deal of affection for it. It's all very '70s (as opposed to the '80s, when it was written), I suppose, but I like it, and would have done when it was published. He didn't write many novels, so I may seek out some more.
It was a day in summer when the pig escaped, the time not long past twelve and a real scorcher. Janet had opened the shop door to let in a breeze, but there was no breeze nor any prospect of customers unless someone should come in for Elderflower Cooler or home-made ginger beer. The Elderflower Cooler, made with homey and lemon juice as well as elderflower water, was particularly refreshing and a new line, but its sale so far had been disappointing; the village children and their mothers preferred Coke and Pepsi from the Spar.It's evident, I think, that this is a modern village; we've got a mixture here of bucolic - the elderflower cooler - and the dysfunctional - it doesn't sell. At every step of the way, appearances are undermined by the author, who comments on and questions his characters' actions and motives. We tell ourselves pretty stories, Bowen is saying, but the reality is much more suspect and may be much darker than we imagine. Susan and Janet, who seem such nice young women at the beginning, will soon have a nasty secret and, while they never really lose our sympathy, their actions are very questionable. Despite your sense of trepidation on their behalf you both want, and don't want, retribution.
There's just a touch of magic here too, a sense that the not-quite-real is immanent, somehow made even more so by the foreword which tells us that one of the characters was a real person. Mrs Marshall is one of those village stalwarts who knows absolutely everything and seems to have a sixth sense about village life. You could easily believe, reading this book, that she'd had a hotline to Old Nick, who would have treated her with respect. She was probably his auntie and had smacked him when he was a little devil. Bowen tells us that she is much missed since she died in 1982. Some of Bowen's other work explores more fully the ways in which myths may underpin modern culture, so it's not surprising to find echoes here, even if they are distant ones (perhaps The Bacchae is the most apparent - Bowen wrote a play based on it, The Disorderly Women). And the themes of fertility and its related ritual readily underlie any evocation of English village life. There's a fine tradition of it in English writing - John Cowper Powys and Sylvia Townsend Warner come immediately to mind, but it stretches down to the present-day - and Bowen is an interesting exponent.