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Rural flotsam

Notwithstanding’s suite of inter- linked stories draws on Louis de Bernière’s memories of the Surrey village (somewhere near Godalming, you infer) where he lived as a boy.

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

21 October 2009

12:00 AM

Notwithstanding Louis de Bernières

Harvill/Secker, pp.275, 12.99

Notwithstanding’s suite of inter- linked stories draws on Louis de Bernière’s memories of the Surrey village (somewhere near Godalming, you infer) where he lived as a boy.

Notwithstanding’s suite of inter- linked stories draws on Louis de Bernière’s memories of the Surrey village (somewhere near Godalming, you infer) where he lived as a boy. Having read the first piece, ‘Archie and the Birds’, about a cheery forty-something bachelor living with his mother who communicates with her by way of a walkie-talkie, and grimly despatched the third, ‘Archie and the Woman’, in which our man marries a fellow dog-walker, I was about to write the whole thing off as an exercise in the higher whimsy when I came across a fourth, and much longer, piece called ‘The Girt Pike.’


Here an 11-year-old boy named Robert, local accent not yet borne away on the Estuarine tide, brings in a yard-long monster that has spent years chewing up the ducklings in Mrs Rendall’s pond. Meticulously done, full of near-incomprehensible Compleat Angler jargon (‘Use the half-blood knot as usual, but wet the line first or it’ll be hard to draw tight’ etc), it ends up just on the right side of sentimentality by virtue of its determinism. Cheery Mrs Rendall ‘one day soon, would be carried away by cancer before she was 40’, while Mr Horne, the obliging tackle-shop proprietor, will end up dead on the railway line, exhausted by years of caring for his mentally ill wife.

The scent of prior knowledge that hangs over the clutch of stories covering the deaths of the village’s original inhabitants gives them a fine, Hardy-esque, dying fall — literally in several cases. We know what is going to happen in ‘The Death of Miss Agatha Feakes’, an ageing spinster who lives only for her pets and whose visitors shun her cat-impregnated teacups, but this doesn’t make her eventual tumble amongst the animal trays (‘She smells newsprint, mud, Kittykat and Chappie, and closes her eyes in agony and resignation’) any less eerie. De Bernières is keen on the numinous, and Miss Feake’s subsequent encounter with the RAF Flight Lieutenant who beguiled her youthful dreams is echoed by the ghostly visitations of ‘Footprint in the Snow’ and ‘Mrs Mac.’

As may already have become apparent, Notwithstanding harbours a fine old cast of eccentric solitaries, garrulous monomaniacs and desiccated rural flotsam. Joyriding nuns from the local convent speed along its roads. Its woods echo to the sound of cross-dressing Polly Wantage reducing the local squirrel population with a twelve-bore. A single, surviving peasant, Jack Oak, accepts an unsolicited £200,000 for his crumbling cottage and retires to Cornwall, only to die of deracination. There is more than one broken heart down here among the Godalming greensward, and if the ghost of ‘Miss Read’ occasionally floats above the proceedings, along with Mr Mac and the spectres of ‘This Beautiful House’, de Bernière’s sharp eye for change, dereliction and diaspora usually tugs them back to earth.

Genuinely poignant and funny, when on top form, some of the stories are a bit less successful. This has to do with the variety of tone. To particularise, there are tall- ish tales (‘Colonel Barkwell, Troodos and the Fish’); there are the three faintly self-indulgent ‘auspicious meetings’ of the members of the ‘famous Notwithstanding Wind Quartet’; and there are examples of that ever-reliable genre, the worsted incomer, as when Mr Chittock of ‘Silly Bugger (2)’ tries to construct a putting course on his mole-haunted lawn. There is also rather a lot of sociological commentary, culminating in ‘The Broken Heart’, which features a two-page rumination on the consequences of Mrs Thatcher and some rather stagy remarks, courtesy of the Oaks, about the locale ‘goin’ posh.’

If Notwithstanding occasionally reads like a fictionalised version of Ronald Blythe’s Akenfield transferred from Suffolk to the Surrey borders, this isn’t to disparage its merits, merely to say that the gap between elegy and archness can sometimes be uncomfortably narrow.


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