"The opening line of this book is sublime and immediately sets the flavour for the rest of the book."
Louise Henderson needs to sleep. Her infant son, Michael never sleeps in the night and with two older children and her husband, Mark to look after, Louise is absolutely exhausted, her body and mind tired from sleep deprivation.
Now they have rented out the spare bedroom to their new tenant, Miss Vera Brandon who doesn't look the sort to rent out such a room in a busy household. Nor was she perturbed that the room was still littered with the family's many boxes and detritus and asked to move in immediately.
When she does, strange things start to happen. Are they really strange things or is it Louise's confused and tired mind playing tricks on her? Is Miss Brandon really such the fine, upstanding schoolmistress she professes to be? Louise has the strangest sensation she has met Miss Brandon before and is it just her imagination that her new tenant is making a play for her husband? Louise cannot be sure if her heightened sensitivity is due to her body crying out for sleep or if she really is being usurped in her own home. And then the worst thing happens. Baby Michael goes missing.
This was Fremlin's first work of fiction and her most famous mainly due to it winning the Edgar for Best Crime Novel in 1960. The opening of this book is sublime and immediately sets the flavour for the rest of the book. Louise's exhaustion is presented on the very first line and you can feel the agonising urge for the poor woman to simply curl up and sleep for a fortnight. As Fremlin has written herself, the idea for this book was born from first-hand experience and you can feel the tiredness, desperation and fear ooze from every word. I say 'fear' as this was a time when motherhood was believed to be a woman's 'highest calling'. Thankfully, times have moved on but it is nonetheless a good history lesson in how not to allow a mother to get so deep in the mire of despair over a child that won't sleep.
Vera Brandon is quietly sinister, her intentions hidden behind a veil of uncertainty. However, I feel it is poor Louise's husband, Mark who should have been marched outside and shot for being so insensitive. It makes me shudder to think that any husband/father could be so remote from his own wife and children. Mark appears to have no interaction with any of his children and so that he has some 'quiet time', (something Louise herself lacks in abundance), Louise makes sure the children don't bother him by entertaining them in another part of the house! Again, it is good to see Dad's these days taking a much bigger role in the handling of their offspring than Mark does in the 1950's!
Fremlin has always been spot on with her characters. The horrendous Mrs. Hooper is a hideous opportunist who dumps her children on any victim she can find to bully in to having her unruly brats. The solution is one tinged with sadness and lost and I can see why it won her an award. This is a very painful and powerful study in motherhood and the strong connection between mother and child.
Reviewed by: C.S.