It has been at least a year or longer since I’ve been compelled to read straight through a book, taking time only to eat, sleep, walk the dogs, and keep the house running. Lynn Freed transported me completely into a world I’ve read about, but only rarely. The voices of Penelope Lively, Dickens, and perhaps even the Brontes whispered around the edges of this story and I was sorry to have it end so soon at only 212 pages.
Cressida lives in Africa amongst an odd assortment of characters. Several years after The War, its horror still visits her Jewish family. Older sister Miranda screams in night terrors, father lies comatose in the back bedroom, and eccentric (or insane?) Aunt Bunch demands constant watching. But it is Cressida’s neighbor who is at once both the most compelling and the most repellent of them all. Mr.Harding, wounded when his plane was shot down over Germany, bears the visible scars of war time–horribly disfigured in the crash, he wears a veil over his panama hat to hide his hideously burned face.
The back story of the events that carry Cressida throughout the novel is complex–sex, money, power, and jealousy compound life at every turn–and Freed only reveals that story a drip or drop at a time. Mr. Hardy, lord of the Big House, watches Cressida from infancy and sees in her a soul that doesn’t belong to the world she inhabits. Here Freed begins to parallel Great Expectations, a conceit that is difficult to ignore once the two stories are connected. Cressida and her family come to live in Harding’s servants’ quarters and it is here that he begins to influence the course of her life. Cressida, herself longing for something more, abides by Mr. Hardy’s rules and rises to his expectations as she grows. Unlike Pip’s, however, the family Cressida must reject is worthy of no nostalgia–crass and common, the reader is relieved whenever Cressida separates herself from them.
Jane Eyre‘s shadow hovers over the novel’s love story–but this element of the novel was still a surprise to me. Poignant, offensive, and touching, I was willing to allow their love to unfold without judgment. If I had any complaint, it would be that Freed chose the easiest way out and relied on a Coda to finish Cressida’s story. In a novel this complex, it seemed too pat an answer.
But it could be that Coda was where Mr. Harding had been leading Cressida all along.