Reviewed by Eleanor Franzen
It’s rare for any book, let alone a book marketed as literary fiction for adults, to open with a thirteen-year-old girl lying flat on her stomach in a marsh. It’s rarer still for that teenaged girl not to be the victim of some horrific tabloid crime, but rather a shotgun-wielding deadeye; and it is rare in the extreme for her quarry to be, not a pheasant or a rabbit, but a dog-sized bat-creature from a parallel universe. This is how Tim Clare begins The Honours.
We find out the girl’s name (Delphine Venner) and, as the prologue continues, we find that she’s sheltering in the cottage of the head gamekeeper, Henry Garforth, on the Alderberen estate. Something has gone deeply, terribly wrong at Alderberen Hall—her parents are still trapped there, and she is going back to rescue them. Garforth has his own role to play in the rescue mission, out in the grounds somewhere; he equips Delphine with handmade grenades and a bandolier of shells for the shotgun, then lets her go. The prologue ends as Delphine clambers down a trapdoor that leads to one of the Hall’s tunnels, bound for death or glory or quite possibly both. Then we jump back nine months. The next half of the book is an extended lead-up to the events of the prologue; eventually, we catch up to where we started, and the showdown begins.
Delphine is a very rewarding heroine. For a while, at the beginning, I was worried that she was going to turn out as one of those girl-heroes whose heroism derives solely from her being Unlike Other Girls, a particularly sneaky brand of sexist stereotyping. (Lyra of His Dark Materials suffers from this in Northern Lights, although she becomes more rounded as the books go on.) But Delphine is not just a cardboard cutout of a tomboy; she is genuinely disturbing, with a powerful imagination that spends much of its time conjuring up scenes of carnage and conflict. Lying in the woods looking at a beetle—a seemingly idyllic English childhood activity—she pictures an army of man-sized beetles, plowing through Germans in the trenches of the last war (which her father fought in), and then, without warning, the narrative plunges us into her head and she is figuring herself as one of the beetles, invincible, smashing through bodies. It’s an extraordinarily destructive fantasy, and it’s not all fantasy, either: when she thinks her mother has been having an affair with one of the other residents of the Hall, she works out her rage by setting Garforth’s ferrets on a haystack full of rats, then bludgeoning the vermin to death with a cricket bat as they come running out. Clare doesn’t jump-cut away from the scene; he forces us to watch it through to the end. Delphine is a charmingly insouciant protagonist (when Garforth demands to know why he should teach her to shoot, she replies that she’s a delinquent and will no doubt steal a gun sooner or later, but with his guidance, she’s less likely to kill someone else or herself), but she’s also a very, very angry young woman. It’s a wonderful surprise to read a book that so fully embraces female anger.
Her anger is partly to do with her father, who seems to be suffering from a combination of post-traumatic stress and bipolar disorder, and partly to do with her mother, whose manner of keeping up appearances consists mostly of issuing frosty commands to Delphine and finding fault with her. Mrs Venner is, eventually, rehabilitated; we begin to see that her husband’s illness is putting terrible strain on her, and when the crisis comes, she redeems herself fully. Mr Venner, on the other hand, is a painfully accurate portrait of a disintegrating mind. Clare directs us toward shell shock as an explanation for his madness, but drops delicate hints (which Delphine overlooks, but which an adult reader does not) about other reasons for the madness, which helps to strengthen our sympathies for Mrs Venner, too.
This creation of resonance between real-world historical events (the two World Wars) and supernatural occurrences (a brewing war between worlds) reminded me quite strongly of Doctor Who; both that show and this novel make the point that our wildest dreams and most deep-seated fears are merely reflections of our own humanity. We are afraid of monsters and the dark because what they represent is something far worse: death, loneliness, the loss of one’s identity. The supernatural elements of The Honours are at their most powerful when they go unstated; a full explanation (which occurs very, very late in the book’s four hundred-odd pages) is strangely less satisfactory than the atmosphere of menace and occultism which the book has been cultivating up to that point.
If a fault can be found with The Honours, it is that the second half of the book is far too long and contains about four different climaxes. A ruthless editor would have been useful for Clare, but as it is, one sympathizes with the editor who didn’t force him to make cuts. No doubt they, like most of Clare’s readers, were pulled along by the action of the book, breathless and helpless, desperate to find out the answers to all of the mysteries. If you want a thought-provoking, suspenseful, and utterly diverting summer read, this is for you.
Tim Clare, The Honours. (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2015) 978-1782114765, 408 pp., hardback.