Review by Elaine Simpson-Long, 12 Sept 2019
It sounds odd to begin a book review with the statement that I do not like contemporary literature. I never have. And it is not because I am a Grumpy Old Woman – I have felt this way all my life. As a teenager working in the library system it was Iris Murdoch and Mary McCarthy who were on the request lists, but there was I reading Dickens or unfashionable authors which were only borrowed by the “old ladies” who came into our library.
Which is why I love the books currently and, I hope, permanently, being republished by the Dean Street Press. Earlier this year they produced a batch of detective stories from the Golden Age of Crime (another of my favourite reading genres and I reviewed one for Shiny here) which I fell upon with cries of joy, and now we have a wonderful series of books published in and around the Second World War.
The House Opposite by Barbara Noble is a quiet book. Though it is set during the Blitz where the protagonists endure the nightly raids, it is the relationships between the residents of two houses in one street that form the centre of the novel.
The Simpson family consists of mother, father and their daughter Elizabeth. She works as a secretary in a London office and when the story starts it is the end of a working day.
“Mr Foster was waiting to sign his letters, his feet on the desk, his chair tilted back, reading the evening paper. He did not look up when his secretary came into the room but when she placed the neatly spaced, uncreased sheets of papers in front of him, swung down his legs and signed each letter….when he had scrawled his name for the fourth time he glanced up at her questioningly.
And so we learn that Elizabeth is having an affair with her boss and has been for some time.
In the other house live the Cathcarts. Father, mother and son Owen. A domineering father with whom he has little in common and a mother hiding an old secret. He is eighteen and hero worships his cousin Derek, a handsome charming young man who has joined the RAF. Owen is troubled by his feelings and when he overhears Elizabeth’s slighting remark “oh that pansy Cathcart boy” he realises that they “had awakened a dread in his heart that had not slept since. They had splashed him with a foul stain which now he must every finger in secret loathing…he had begun to believe that the thing they implied was true”
Both Owen and Elizabeth are unhappy in their own way and, in the end, it is this which draws them together. Finding that they are both doing fire watching duties on the same shift, they are forced to spend time in each other’s company and find common ground.
In the midst of the Blitz they form a connection. Once Owen realises that Elizabeth is miserable and suffering it somehow frees him to help her and to forget those sneering words:
“She looked at him wonderingly. ‘You have changed a lot lately haven’t you Owen? I don’t think it is because I know you better than I did…what is it?’
‘I believe I am happy’ he answered her with surprise in his voice. ‘do you think it is wicked to be happy now?’
‘Of course not.’
She felt almost tranquil herself as side by side they walked across the common in the moonlight.”
I found this a most satisfying book to read. The descriptions of the Blitz, the makeshift AP posts, the broken glass, the gutted houses, all bring the atmosphere of the time very close and in no way mitigate the stress and strain the characters undergo. Elizabeth’s mother is so terrified of the bombardment and trying to conceal it from her family, that she takes to secret drinking and when this is discovered, Elizabeth is bitterly ashamed of herself from not noticing how much her mother was suffering, being so obsessed with her own unhappiness.
I sat and read this through in one sitting and really enjoyed the matter of fact portrayal of lives in a time of war when it was a matter of getting on with it and feeling that one’s own personal unhappiness did not matter in the scheme of things. But it does. One can still feel sorrow and misery and distress in daily life while dealing bravely with the chaos around.
And this is what The House Opposite does so beautifully. I loved it and shall be seeking out more by this author.
Elaine blogs at Random Jottings.
Barbara Noble, The House Opposite (Dean Street Press, 2019). 978-1913054298, 234pp., paperback.
BUY at Blackwell’s (affiliate link).