Book Review: Larchfield by Polly Clark

What’s it about?

Dora has moved to a small Scottish town, newly married and a new mother. However, she didn’t realise how lonely she’d feel nor how cold her neighbours would be. Isolated and desperate for a human connection, she calls a number she finds in a bottle on the beach.

In 1930, W.H. Auden is yet to be the world-famous poet and is instead a teacher at Larchfield School. Perturbed by his (illegal) homosexual desires, he too seeks someone to connect with, and throws a bottle into the Clyde.

My thoughts

For me, this book rather sank without trace. I’d actually forgotten I’d read it, until I saw it on my ‘books to review’ pile and tried to recall what it was about. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, nor was it poorly written, just that it didn’t make an much of an impression.

I’ve tried to understand why this is. It could be that I am neither a new mother nor a gay man, so couldn’t connect with either character, but that seems a bit simplistic as parts of both stories did resonate with me. It could be the location; I’ve been to Helensburgh, where it is set, but spent my time there going door-to-door selling charity subscriptions on a naval estate rather than in the genteel bits. Maybe I couldn’t reconcile the shabby gentry Clark describes with my memories. Or it could be that I struggled with the time travelling aspect.

I’m most inclined to think it’s the latter. I’m a fan of magic realism- One Hundred Years of Solitude and Wise Children are among my favourite books- but this aspect of Larchfield seemed tacked on. Perhaps I needed to be ready for it, but I’d rather have read a book with two separate narratives that glance off each other through history than time travelling.

There are bits I liked; it’s beautifully written, and the neighbour characters are truly detestable. Her depiction of life as an outsider is striking, and apparently based on the author’s own experiences of moving to Helensburgh. Equally, the passages about Dora’s identity as a new mother are very moving, especially on how the health services treat her. For Auden, I loved the sections about him and Christopher Isherwood; the section about 1930s Berlin is just top notch. Clark is certainly a very skilled writer.

Would I recommend it?

Yes, I think so. It didn’t entirely work for me, but I’d love to hear what other people think. I’ll most likely be reading whatever Polly Clark does next, too!

Larchfield by Polly Clark is published by Quercus priced £8.99.

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