The Hours Before Dawn by Celia Fremlin

Reviewed by Harriet

Soon after midnight she would wake; and again at half past two; and again at four. As the months went by, I found myself quite distracted by lack of sleep; my eyes would fall shut while I peeled the potatoes or ironed shirts. I remember one night sitting on the bottom step of the stairs, my baby awake and lively in my arms and it dawned on me: this is a major human experience, why hasn’t someone written about it? It seemed to me that a serious novel should be written with this experience at its centre. Then it occurred to me – why don’t I write one?

So wrote Celia Fremlin about the genesis of her first novel, The Hours Before Dawn. It took her a while to get the novel published, but when she did, it won the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award. Today we are accustomed to the popular genre known as the psychological thriller, but in 1958, when this novel was published, it was a much less common form. So this novel, which shows with devastating accuracy the effect of sleep deprivation on a young mother, was certainly ground-breaking in its day.

The Hours Before Dawn was first revived a few years ago in the now defunct print-on-demand series known as Faber Finds; now the publisher has reissued it as a commercial reprint, complete with a preface by the crime novelist Laura Wilson. Though (or because of) being very much of its time, the novel certainly deserves to reach a wide audience. This is the story of Louise Henderson, wife of Mark and mother of three children. Two of them, girls, are at primary school, and the third is a recent arrival, seven-month-old Michael. Michael is a strong, healthy child who behaves delightfully during the day. At night, though, he becomes a torment to his desperate mother. He wakes every couple of hours, screaming, and Louise’s only recourse is to get up and take him downstairs to avoid waking the rest of the family. She often ends up in the scullery, her feet propped up on a bucket, dropping with sleep as she desperately jiggles her unhappy son. And nobody seems to understand or sympathise. The neighbours complain and even Mark is singularly unsympathetic and keeps asking her why she can’t keep the child quiet. Louise’s days have become a nightmare as she struggles against the effects of such radical sleep deprivation.

If this were not enough, money is rather tight in the household, and a decision has been made to rent a spare bedroom upstairs. Soon someone turns up to take the room: a Miss Vera Brandon, a middle-aged schoolteacher, who seems to be delighted with what is, after all, a rather simple and not particularly tidy room.

Louise was a little surprised. Miss Brandon, both in voice and appearance, gave the impression of being a successful woman of the world, both critical and self-assured; not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her home an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house. Louise felt suddenly ill at ease.

Louise’s disquiet intensifies over the coming days and weeks. Mark takes a great liking to Miss Brandon, and the two of them often disappear up to her room to discuss their shared interest in the classics, and the children report that they have seen the lodger snooping around the Hendersons’ office while Louise was out. One day, Miss Brandon looks in on Louise in the morning to say she’s going to Oxford for the day and won’t be back till late, but Louise is convinced that she has actually crept back upstairs and spent the day silently in her room.

The problem is, of course, that Louise’s credibility has been eroded by the obvious effects of her exhaustion. She herself is certain that Miss Brandon is up to something, but cannot imagine what it might be. It’s only when the children, innocently scouting around pretending to be spies, make a discovery which they themselves don’t see the implications of, that Louise gets a hint which sets her off on a secret investigation of her own. And in the end her detective work pays off.

This novel is worth reading for so many reasons. It is a thriller, of course, and the denouement is probably something you wouldn’t guess. I said it was very much of its time, but that in itself makes it particularly fascinating. I suppose Louise is a typical middle-class housewife of the 1950s, receiving no help whatsoever from her otherwise quite pleasant husband, wrestling with heavy chores and shopping, making lunch for the girls, who come home from school every day, washing the nappies, fending off the interfering neighbours. I hope I’m right in saying that things have changed since those now far-off days. All this is quite harrowing, but Fremlin is also capable of witty, though somewhat painful satire: here it is Louise’s friends and neighbours who come under the microscope. There’s dreadful Mrs Hooper, who claims to be an enlightened mother who gives her children absolute freedom, but who actually palms them off on whoever is weak enough to give in to her blandishments. There’s Edna Larkin, the occasional babysitter and obsessive knitter, who Mark describes as ‘always pawing mounds of wool around, like a dispirited kitten’. Then there’s Louise’s old schoolfriend Beatrice, who rings her now and then to give her a run-down on the lives of every single person they ever went to school with… and so on. All very well observed.

Celia Fremlin wrote sixteen novels in all, and I actually reviewed two of them in the very first issue of Shiny: you can read that review here, and you’ll also find a link to Victoria’s biographical piece on Fremlin. I think she is an important writer, and I hope Faber will be reissuing some more of her novels soon.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Celia Fremlin, The Hours Before Dawn (Faber & Faber, 2017). 978-0571338122, 250pp., paperback original.

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