Reviewed by Harriet
Rose Tremain’s novels – of which we’ve reviewed many on Shiny (see here) – have taken readers to the distant and not so distant past, and to many different countries. Here we have a story which is set in England, in an era which some readers will remember: the late 1950s and 60s. It’s the delicate and beautifully observed narrative of a young girl’s first love from its first moments to a final revelation which puts the whole history in perspective.
Marianne Clifford is fifteen when she first meets beautiful eighteen-year-old Simon Hurst, in his last year at public school and preparing for his Oxford Entrance exam. Instantly struck with him, she dreams of sweeping him off his feet at the Christmas party, wearing the shimmering grey taffeta dress she makes on an old sewing machine, taking the pattern from a Vogue Pattern Book. At the party she is devastated at first as he is nowhere to be seen – it was ‘as though I’d been given news of a Russian nuclear strike on Berkshire’ – but soon he appears, behind the wheel of a brand new pale blue Morris Minor. Before long she is in the car, in the woods, and losing her virginity on the back seat. As far as Marianne is concerned, this seals her future – she will love him absolutely and forever.
Sadly, her hopes for a dazzlingly happy future together are shattered when Simon fails his Oxford Entrance and takes off for Paris with dreams of becoming a celebrated writer. At first he writes to her at boarding school, so that every day is now dominated by her desire to see his ‘titchy’ writing on an envelope. But the letters tail off, and eventually she gets one containing the devastating news that he has married the daughter of his Paris landlady. But Marianne is now trapped in what she describes to her best friend Pet as a ‘love asylum’, which causes her to fail her own O-level exams.
Nothing she goes on to do can erase the memory of the man she sees as her one and only true love. Her deeply disappointed parents, Colonel Clifford and his wife Lavender, are wholly unsympathetic to her attempts to explain her state of mind: her cold, remote mother tells her it can’t be love, she’s too young, it must be a crush. So she’s packed off to a secretarial college in London, not a great success as she can’t concentrate, works in a department store, becomes an assistant agony aunt on a Fleet Street newspaper. The delights of swinging London rather pass her by, though she has a fling with a young man who she meets in a coffee bar, and who ends up telling her she’s ‘a lousy fuck’. Eventually she marries a family friend, Hugo Forster-Pellisier, who adores her. She’s fond of him but, much as she’d love to adore him back, she can’t. The love asylum refuses to go away. It’s only after ten years of a marriage which has rarely been more than marginally satisfactory that she finds herself back in rural Berkshire, looking after her aging father after her mother’s death. And it’s here that she finally learns something that makes sense of everything she has suffered before.
As well as being a wonderful portrayal of a young girl’s passionately deep feelings, the novel brilliantly evokes the eras in which it takes place. Every detail is spot on, from the middle-class lifestyle of the scrabble-playing, golf-loving Cliffords, through a London which, for Marianne, refuses to swing, to her days as a bored and lonely housewife, mildly depressed and unable to move beyond some light cleaning and meal planning. Tremain is undoubtedly one of the finest novelists in Britain today, and this slender book is a welcome addition to her impressive and varied work.
Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Rose Tremain, Absolutely and Forever (Chatto & Windus, 2023). 978-1784745202, 198pp., hardback.
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