Review by Harriet
If you’ve read Annabel’s account of the Golden Booker presentation, you’ll have noticed that one of the judges, Lemn Sissay, urged the audience to read this book. This made me feel slightly smug, as I’d already read it, but also made me think about the fact that the book has somewhat divided its readers. Subtitled ‘A Life Built by Books’, this is a childhood memoir with a difference. It’s the story of a young girl’s growing up in a decidedly dysfunctional household, who survives through her reading of Miss Marple, Jane Eyre and David Copperfield.
When I was eight I wanted to be Miss Marple. I still do. Miss Marple knows everything about everyone, but nobody knows anything about her. She has no backstory. You can’t see behind her and you can never get around her.
While the desire to possess Miss Marple’s omniscience is obviously a helpful trait for a writer, the wish to have no backstory seems rather counter-intuitive for an autobiographer. In a sense, though, this might be a clue to the way the book proceeds. The story is told from the perspective of the child, aged about eight when the book begins and about fourteen when it reaches its conclusion. During these years many mysterious events take place in the home, events which many readers will hope will be logically explained at some point, a hope which turns out to be in vain.
Bayley grew up in an all-female household in a town somewhere on the south coast of England. The house is presided over by three women: her mother Ange, her grandmother Edna May, known as Maze, and her Aunt Di. Various lodgers appear from time to time, including Poor Sue, and The Woman Upstairs, some of whom disappear in unexplained ways. There are also younger siblings and cousins, though we hear almost nothing about them. The house is dirty and chaotic. The children live mainly on cheese on toast. A man turns up one day who Bayley thinks may be her father, and the children are taken to dinner in a nearby hotel, where they are told they can only have the starter – grapefruit – while the adults tuck in to three courses. The father, if such he is, soon disappears, sent away by Ange. Ange has a baby, David, who lies in his pram among the roses until one day Bayley sees that the pram is empty. Ange then takes to her bed ‘for a long time’. She and Aunt Di then appear to join some kind of religious cult, and the house fills up with people chanting and praying. Eventually, oppressed by her growing feeling that she doesn’t belong in this family, Bayley visits a doctor, who refers her to a social worker. Attempts to persuade Ange and her relatives to behave more kindly and rationally having failed – Ange and Aunt Di turn on the social worker in scorn and fury – the young teenage Bayley ends up in a children’s home from whence she became – as her biographical blurb tells us – ‘the first person from the West Sussex Care System to go to university’.
If this were the whole story, Girl with Dove would be just another misery memoir. But it’s much more interesting than that. Bayley coped by immersing herself in books. Her mother encouraged her, being herself addicted to Dylan Thomas and Shakespeare. Bayley had read all of Miss Marple by the time she was about eight, Jane Eyre not so long afterwards. These two became her role models – more than role models in fact, as they were as real to her as the flesh and blood people who inhabited her world. She could see them and hear them and they guided her – soon joined by Peggotty and Betsy Trotwood from David Copperfield – in making her way through the strange experiences life constantly threw at her. The narrative voice swings, or swims, between these two realities, and it’s up to the reader to work out whether we are in Saint Mary Mead, at Lowood School or in Bayley’s family home.
All this is fascinating though at times somewhat confusing. Those people who like hard facts will be, and indeed have been, irritated by the lack of closure here. What did happen to baby David? Who were all the people who appear and disappear so mysteriously? And how did the family end up? It’s hard not to wonder how Bayley’s siblings and cousins survived this upbringing. The truth is that there’s no point in worrying about all this because answers are not forthcoming. This is a book you have to just throw yourself into, and all credit to Bayley for sustaining the child’s voice and consciousness, which is after the whole point: explanations from the adult point of view would spoil the effect.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Sally Bayley, Girl with Dove: A Life Built by Books (William Collins, 2018). 978-0008226855, 288pp., hardback.
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