I was listening last week to DesertIsland Discs, the Radio 4 biographical/verging on the existential interview institution (perhaps it's the Sunday morning thing, but it always feels to me like a conversation with Saint Peter - the same way that 'This Is Your Life' always felt like a memorial service run-through, albeit much more relaxing, especially with Kirsty Young in charge). Anyway, it was an old instalment from the nineties (so with the rather more frosty Sue Lawley), and the castaway was Nina Bawden. That's where I discovered that her first novel is a thriller in the first person, narrated by a man who has murdered his twin sister (who has a wooden leg).
I haven't read a great deal of Bawden's work yet, but like Sue Lawley before me, I know pretty well that this is atypical of it. Sue stresses how 'extraordinary' this literary transvestism is (she doesn't use those exact words). I think it's more extraordinary that Bawden wrote the whole novel in secret, while her first child was a baby - writing when she got up in the night to see to him, telling not even her husband that she had written it, until she had already posted it to Collins.
Bawden, though, sees it differently - as a time when she was lacking self-confidence, using the thriller genre as a disguise while she honed her craft. 'It was very difficult: one didn't really think that you had anything important to say if you hadn't been a fighter pilot or an air raid warden or - or something, at least, to do with the war...' It's a double lack of confidence - in the idea you might be able to tackle big literary themes, and in the idea that the life of a civilian in wartime could be carry that weight itself.
And this, The Peppermint Pig, is the second of her novels that I've read - the first being, of course, Carrie's War, and in both we hear the stories on the other side of that great, masculine uber-narrative of heroism and derring-do. In Carrie's War, the adults have gone off to fight or at least drive ambulances, and the children have been dispatched into peace and safety. It's a story of self-dependency and self-discovery as part of that process, and Bawden makes Carrie's triumphs and losses so deeply interior that nobody else is aware of them, and yet that very silent, private reckoning is incredibly powerful.
The title itself points toward the sense of a new perspective on an ossified, history-book event, and in her forlorn flash-forwards, we get this poignant, almost unsettling awareness of how enduringly significant that quiet, isolated episode is for its protagonist.
The story of The Peppermint Pig is also sprung into action by the departure of a father. Like a Boy's Own hero, Poll and Theo's Papa heroically takes responsibility for a theft at work (a carriage-marker's - this is the early 1900s) and uses it as a pretext to head off for
America to seek his fortune. But
this is a Girl's Own story, about the rest of the family's new life with their
mother's family in Norfolk.
Reduced in circumstances, transplanted to a new, claustrophobic village where
everybody knows everybody's business. There is not quite the drama of Carrie's War, but there's a palpable
sense of innocence under pressure - and before the end of the novel, there has
been one shocking act of violence, and at the very end of the novel...
It's a novel from a child's perspective, from the very opening chapter when Poll overhears something she shouldn't from underneath the dining table. Also instrumental, Theo is an unconventional male protagonist: a small, rather sensitive boy. The family adopt a 'peppermint' pig, small enough to pop it in a pint glass, and Theo whispers to him: 'We're the same, you and me. I'm a peppermint boy.'
And in some ways, this feels a partial rewrite of The Railway Children: only, a story in which the parents are much carefully more observed, albeit in the corner of the eye. But like Carrie's War, it does apparently have elements of autobiography threaded through it, or rather, the biograhy of Bawden's mother - just as Poll's mother tells her stories about Granny Greengrass (but not about Grandpa Greengrass - and I won't tell you either: read the book!).
I loved this book, and now I must read more Bawden - though I'm not sure where to start next, there are so many. I found this copy in a church in Bethnal Green, one horribly wet day last month, and another fan has already ticked off in pencil the 'Also By This Author' titles at the end.
And left this memorial leaf in the library binding, to decay mysteriously, as a message to themselves, and now to me, and now to you too. A story about what we're not told, indeed...
The picture at the top is David Hockney's portrait of a woman with her sewing machine - dressmaking being so crucial to this novel. I really wanted to steal some beautiful photos of antique lace from someone else's blog but I was feeling virtuous. Go google and discover...