A Way Through the Wood by Nigel Balchin

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Reviewed by Victoria

Clive James called Nigel Balchin ‘the missing writer of the Forties’, a remark that notes the period in which he was highly acclaimed as a brilliant popular novelist, and the completeness with which he has fallen from view. Nowadays, Balchin is a name that few will remember, despite a run of extremely successful novels in the wake of the Second World War. The only thing about Nigel Balchin that may strike a chord in modern day readers is the fact that one of his daughters from his first marriage is Dr Penelope Leach, the childcare expert. But if all his other novels are all as readable and compelling as A Way Through The Wood, then it’s worth hoping that more of them will be re-issued. Balchin’s writing is more fresh and insightful about relationships than many a popular contemporary author’s.

The collapse of Balchin’s first marriage was widely considered to be the motivation for A Way Through The Wood, which is a slow-burning, psychologically intense account of marital collapse. Though by describing it that way I make it sound much heavier and more of a slog than it is. The novel begins with a sweetly telling scene at the annual village fête, where local magistrate and businessman, James Manning, is having a lovely time. He is President of the organising committee and he takes a simple, uncomplicated joy in the community event. For his wife, Jill, however, things are very different. Jill finds the whole shebang a bit of a bore and a waste of time. She can’t help but get the giggles in the local talent show, and she forgets to bring the money box to accompany the dart game she’s nominally running. Jill isn’t a bad person, but she’s messy and disorganised and the village fête just isn’t her kind of thing. Worst of all, this year she has found a partner in crime in the local aristocrat, the Honorable William Bule. The fact that the ‘Honbill’ as they call him isn’t very honorable at all make James disinclined to like him. But his subversive ways and his readiness to have fun at the expense of others makes him catnip to Jill.

And then something unpleasant happens. A young man is knocked off his bike and killed in a hit and run accident. He was the husband of James and Jill’s cleaner, and so James takes an instant and intense interest in the crime. The cleaner’s brother happens to be a local policeman and the two of them get together to play detective. James figures out that the unknown driver of the car must be local, as there is no other reason to be travelling down that particular lane, and then he notices a long scratch on the side of the Honbill’s Lagonda. James is already a little torn about accusing a man who is supposedly a friend of the family, and then he discovers that he is more than a friend to Jill… who at the time of the accident was driving his car.

No spoilers here, this much is told to the reader on the back cover. What happens next is a slow-motion car crash of a different kind, as James must come to terms with the fact that Jill was the culprit and that she would never have owned up to it, if James hadn’t been so persistent in his inquiries. But essentially what obsesses the story is a clash of personalities. James is a self-aware ‘good’ person; he does the right thing, he enjoys the right things, he expects people to respect him as someone who does and enjoys all the right things. He ought to be an entirely sympathetic character. Jill, by contrast knows she is a slacker and and a bit of a cheat. She knows she ought to take steps to be a better woman, but she can’t quite help herself, and it’s Balchin’s talent at drawing characters that makes James come across as a bit of a prig at times, and Jill as someone the reader can’t help but relate to. You really can see both sides. Balchin is also insightful in the way his couple reacts when the crisis occurs. James pushes Jill away while making it all look as if he is doing everything for her; Jill tries to cling to him while accepting the pushing because she has so much guilt and there is a part of her that is truly unhappy, always being the bad girl in their marriage. They create an enormous mess for themselves.

Although the reader is pretty sure that the marriage is going down, Balchin keeps you guessing up to the last minute, and he does so not in a sensational way, but through a process that seems completely true to human nature. This is a clever, gripping novel that asks difficult questions about ethics, morality and love, and doesn’t give pat answers. Apart from the odd gendered argument of the kind that has fallen out of favour nowadays (but which comes from another character in any case, and so stands not as the truth but just another point of view), it reads very well, a product of its time, but not out-of-date. All in all, a compact and enthralling tale, a quick read but full of unexpected depth. More Nigel Balchin, please.

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Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Nigel Balchin, A Way Through the Wood (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2016). 978-1474601207, 288 pp., paperback.

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