Sunday, 10 July 2011

Penguin no. 921: An Avenue of Stone
by Pamela Hansford Johnson

The sense of being 'left behind' may never arise again from any one specific thing; but I believe it comes inevitably with the understanding that one has grown old. For years we cling to the belief that we are young for our age, that young men and women appreciate us far more than our contemporaries do. Our minds are strong, and our legs also. We are still learning, we can still change. And then, suddenly, we realize that the marchers are passing us by, and we are taken by pure panic. Soon we shall be alone upon the interminable road, seeing in the distance only the jolting, merging backs of those that continue on.

The title An Avenue of Stone evokes the image of a Victorian cemetery, with its sepulchral monuments lining the path to a grave. Or perhaps a road hemmed in by stone walls: cold and continuous, without diversion or contrast, and from which there is no possible means of escape, so that the only possible path is forward. Both images capture the idea of the book. The allusion is to old age, and the story explores one woman's desperation as she considers that relentless journey with its unavoidable destination.

Helena is a difficult woman who has lived an interesting life. This is the second book of a trilogy, and I assume her younger years are dealt with in detail in the first book which I do not own, but the small references to her past given here suggest that she was an actress, needing and receiving attention and admiration, who managed to marry above herself, becoming Lady Archer and entering into a life of luxury. Being Lady Archer was simply a new rôle she consciously adopted, a continuation of her acting career, and when her husband dies she relishes the idea of becoming herself again and rediscovering enjoyment in life. But Lord Archer disburses his wealth between his step-daughter and his former lovers, and Helena unexpectedly finds herself relatively poor and suddenly unimportant. For the first time she contemplates the reality of being old:

You wait, Claud, you wait...till you wake one morning and realize that you're old, and that you won't live more than a dozen years probably and then you'll be in the grave you've often thought about but never believed in, only you don't feel old. You want more of life, much more of it, but if you took one foot out of the grave people would be disgusted because that's where they think one foot ought to be at your time of life.
She entertains herself in a way that makes her difficult to like: by dissembling, or making outrageous statements, or tormenting those that will tolerate it, or indulging in private jokes; anything to ensure she retains the limelight. But these same qualities that make her unappealing also make her interesting. She is vibrant, unforgettable and unconventional. All the other elderly characters in the story come across as bland in comparison, living the smallest of lives.

The story is narrated by Helena's stepson, Major Claud Pickering, who tells of the platonic obsession Helena develops for his irresolute former colleague Johnny Field. One of the aspects I found impressive in the novel is that the story was told so that Helena always held my sympathy, despite the fact I didn't like her. I felt her frustration at the well-meaning interference of her daughter and stepson as she tries to pursue the few opportunities for happiness and diversion that come her way. And I admired her single-minded determination to live her own life heedless of any need to conform with the limiting conventions of appropriate behaviour for an elderly woman. But her age makes her vulnerable and desperate, and her desperation dulls her assessment of the motives of others. Nothing can alter the fact that she is living the last act of her life, all the excitement and adventure are in the past, and there is no real prospect of escaping from the boredom, loneliness and panic.

As with the third book of the series A Summer to Decide, I was unconvinced by the gender of the narrator. It always seemed to be a woman's voice and a story told from a female perspective. But this was only a minor distraction. Overall I was impressed by the author's reflections on ageing, and her insights into the motivations of these characters, and the reasons they behaved the way they did. The characters at the centre of the story were all self-centred and manipulative, and though they did not seem to mean harm, they were generally unconcerned with the pain they caused others as they pursued happiness for themselves. It is an impressive book focusing on an unusual subject.

By the same author:

Penguin no. 1004: A Summer to Decide

4 comments:

  1. Lovely review. I can't remember if I have read this or not, isn't that terrible? I did read about a half dozen of her books many years ago, but the only one that sticks in my mind is This Bed Thy Centre. The author was married to C P Snow.

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  2. I always admire authors who are willing to tackle the subject of aging. It is a subject that is so feared and ignored by people, but one that I think needs to be addressed head on. It is especially hard for women to face, I think. This book sounds amazingly frank and honest about the subject.

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  3. Ooh, I have a bit of a movie playing in my head!

    And may I just say that your collection is rather impressive.

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  4. You are rediscovering a lot of forgotten books here. Fascinating stuff. This one sounds quite interesting and makes me want to examine the shelves of second-hand book stores rather more closely

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