Boy/Girl

Stephen Bann

  • George beneath a Paper Moon by Nina Bawden
    Macmillan, 192 pp, £7.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 333 35380 3
  • The Ice-House by Nina Bawden
    Macmillan, 236 pp, £7.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 333 35244 0
  • A Dance to the Glory of God by Hugh Fleetwood
    Hamish Hamilton, 183 pp, £8.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 241 11088 2
  • The Ice Monkey, and Other Stories by John Harrison
    Gollancz, 144 pp, £8.95, June 1983, ISBN 0 575 03259 6
  • Arabic Short Stories translated by Denys Johnson-Davies
    Quartet, 173 pp, £6.95, July 1983, ISBN 0 7043 2367 2
  • The Changelings: A Classical Japanese Court Tale translated by Rosette Willig
    Stanford, 248 pp, $19.50, May 1983, ISBN 0 8047 1124 0

It is an entertaining and rewarding experience to look at the reissue of Nina Bawden’s George beneath a Paper Moon immediately before her most recent novel, The Ice-House. A decade separates the two books. The text of The Ice-House bristles with those tiny signs of contemporaneity that remind us, all the time, that this is a chronicle of the Eighties, while its predecessor has begun to acquire the period patina of the early Seventies. In place of the still evergreen romance of package tours, we have the weary cavalcade of glue-sniffing, premature redundancies and confrontation between the National Front and the Anti-Nazi League. But once these indications of response to period and milieu have been discounted, there is a great deal in common between the two novels. It is not just that an occasional idiomatic touch creates an echo effect, as when a minor character brands himself linguistically by planning to ‘get the old pecker up’. For beyond these minor repetitions, and beyond the obvious recurrences of an attractive and idiosyncratic style, something very like a common deep structure emerges.

George beneath a Paper Moon revolves around the lives of George and Sam, friends from childhood, fellow students at the university and reciprocal tests for one another as their careers and characters diverge. The Ice-House revolves around the lives of Ruth and Daisy, friends from childhood and near-neighbours in the fashionable but vandalised London square which provides a diverse and lively setting for their intertwining familial sagas. By comparison with these two pairs of characters, each embodying a range of contrary attributes and inclinations, the additional characters taken on as wives or husbands play a more devious role, complicating the action and throwing a skein of misconception and illusion over the workings of the plot. Sam’s wife, Claire, has persuaded George that he is the father of her daughter, Sally; and George suffers from the guilt of being in love with Sally, his supposed daughter, while at the same time regretting that he himself has married Leila, an older woman, in a fit of misplaced benevolence. If we shift the scene to The Ice-House, Ruth has become convinced that her husband, Joe, is having an affair with another woman; Joe admits to the accusation and invents a mistress under the unlikely name of Eunice Pilbeam. Just as, in George beneath a Paper Moon, the dénouement is prepared by George’s recognition that Sally is in fact Sam’s daughter, so in the later novel it is prepared by Ruth’s discovery that the detested mistress was her friend Daisy all the time.

Nina Bawden plays delicately on the theme of childhood friendship, teasing out its mild homosexual undertone and tracing its transformations in later life. She is also expert in conveying the effect of inheritance across generations, showing us that a daughter or a son is not the same person as their father or mother, and yet not entirely a different one either. George’s childhood fascination with Sam is displaced into his love for Sally, whom he cannot admit to be Sam’s daughter until he literally sees Sam’s mother in her:

Saw, in that vividly remembered gesture, in the way her head was set on the unbroken sweep of her naked spine as she looked down at him, exactly who she was; without doubt, without question. Without, even, surprise ...

   Recognition, not revelation. He had known this for so long and hidden it from himself for so many, convoluted, human reasons. Guilt at first, naturally. He had needed this living evidence that he had betrayed Sam. And fear of appearing ridiculous. He might act the fool but that was a self-protective game: you shout loudest what you fear most. Perhaps, in the end, that was the real truth of it. He had preferred to shelter behind the lie of this oldest taboo, rather than commit himself to his folly; jump with both feet into the deep end of an absurd, hopeless love.

In The Ice-House, it is Ruth who comes to a similar ‘recognition’. Her childhood has been dominated by the antagonisms of a brutal father. The spectre of Eunice Pilbeam brings out her latent aggression towards her husband, Joe, and causes a momentary sense of identification with the sadistic father (‘Perhaps I’m more like him than I had thought’). But the chance opportunity to save Joe from an accidental death purges her of guilt and aggression, and reconciles her to the truth that her childhood companion is also her husband’s ex-mistress: ‘ “Of course you know me,” Ruth said, with a soft, candid look. “You’re my oldest friend, aren’t you?” ’ So the novel ends.

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