Descent into Oddness

Dinah Birch

  • Pinkerton’s Sister by Peter Rushforth
    Scribner, 729 pp, £18.99, September 2004, ISBN 0 7432 5235 7

Using literature as a way out of your life carries less of a stigma than lager or Grand Theft Auto. It’s understood as a mark of educated cultivation, not wilful indulgence or evasion. Yet reading, like every other exercise of the imagination, can be abused, can turn into an addiction. The connection between this and other kinds of abuse is something that Peter Rushforth has been thinking about for a long time. In 1979 he published his first novel, Kindergarten, a short and desolate work which won the Hawthornden Prize. A meditation on ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the grimmest of tales, Kindergarten describes a world well worth escaping. The child at its centre, Corrie, is a musical boy whose developing talents are a response to isolation. His mother was killed by terrorists; his much-loved grandmother, Lilli, recently disabled by a stroke (she will soon die too), is a German Jew whose family was destroyed in the war. Lilli is an artist, and her illustrations of fairy stories are crowded with images of her murdered relatives – faces Corrie never saw. The narrative is framed by snatches of a 20th-century version of ‘Hansel and Gretel’, in which the witch’s oven and the ovens of the concentration camps are conflated.

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