Who would have thought that the idea for a novel about mothers at the school gate would spark a frenzied bidding for world rights? Not a subject to make the heart race, surely, but race publishers did for a first novel by Gill Hornby, whose inspiration it was. Plainly she did her research at a school gate, and her acute ear has captured every nuance of the motherly buzz that will be universally recognised.
Heavens, they’re a lively lot, and how they talk — all in a language that is particular to forty-something mothers. They share a vocabulary — keenos, newbie, yikes, oops.soz, bagsy, delish. The words ping off the page, indicating incredible speed of communication that sometimes leaves the reader breathless.
The children all go to St Ambrose School. We mostly follow the mothers’ A team: Bea, Rachel, Georgie and poor Heather — a wonderfully sad but comic character, constantly striving to be more popular, more wanted. Others in the group are less often but just as wittily sketched in, while the fathers, although bit-players, are also brightly drawn.
The mothers must be the most charitable, hospitable and energetic of any such group in the land. (As they don’t have very seriously taxing jobs, they do have time.) When a new — unmarried — headmaster arrives and explains that savage cuts have to be made, they explode with good ideas to raise money. There are constant home-cooked lunch parties (£15 a head), of varying success, in different houses. Other inspirations are a car boot sale, a ball, and finally a quiz, where we learn how brainy some of the mothers are. Whatever the idea, no matter how much hard work it means, those gallant mothers face it. The daily timetable — drop off 8.30 a.m., pick up 4.30p.m. — is a constant reminder of the hectic nature of their days.
A missing element is a sense of place: no part of the country is mentioned, though I would guess the setting to be a small town in the south of England. But the great pleasure of The Hive is the internal landscapes — the often uproariously funny thoughts each mother has about her friends’ kitchens, gardens, talents and clothes. There’s jealousy, despair, hope, fury, smugness and disappointment all crammed exhilaratingly together in the buzzing minds. And of course an edge of bitchiness, sometimes, couched in sympathy: ‘Shame she [Heather] didn’t meet triumph more often,’ thinks one of them.
Their children, however, are scarcely described and any sadnesses — a divorce, a husband’s suicide — are not dwelt on. The headmaster’s most important role is to provide a beautifully constrained love interest. Indeed, the tentative moves between him and a divorced mother are, in a quiet way, thrilling. When their feet brush under the table at the quiz, they find themselves ‘at that rare, exquisite point…when the mundane becomes sublime’ and an air of poetry soars into Hornby’s brisk prose.
At the end of the year wild-haired Georgie is suddenly inspired by the thought that the group of mothers was something other than a collection of separate, individual friendships:
Something else had grown out of that… caring was the sticky stuff, the adhesive that kept it all together. And…between them, by this interlocking, this lattice-work of friendships, they had built this: a strong support beneath their offspring that would keep them safe; a firm frame on which they could grow.
We are left with the idea that this feeling is probably shared by millions of mothers at millions of school gates. Hornby’s combining of ‘the sticky stuff’ and the daily ups and downs is marvellously conveyed — altogether delish.