Monday, February 1, 2010

Review: Miss Hargreaves by Frank Baker

During a trip to Ireland, Norman Huntley, lay-clerk chorister and student organist, and his mechanic friend Henry stop in to tour a less than impressive church, as much to escape the rain as for any interest in the edifice itself. But on the tour given them by the sexton, they not only feign interest, they create out of whole cloth an elderly friend of theirs who had once been an intimate of the late, beloved vicar. Not content to throw out a made-up name (Miss Connie Hargreaves), they also endow their creation with any number of ridiculous eccentricities and oddments. The farce entertains them long after they leave the church and on a whim, they send a letter, inviting Miss Hargreaves to visit Norman in his home town of Conford, to the hotel they've decided she always removes to for that month of the year. As the entire thing is started as a lark, it is a little startling when Norman receives a telegram telling him when to expect Miss Hargreaves. It's beyond startling when Miss Hargreaves actually turns up, exactly as Norman and Henry have imagined her.

Miss Hargreaves, as she's imagined, starts to cause all sorts of stress for Norman within his family, in his job, and especially with his girlfriend. Worse yet, whenever there's a disturbance in the town, Norman can almost be assured that his Miss Hargreaves is behind it. And no one believes Norman when he tries continuously to explain that he made this strange, elderly woman up. Even Henry thinks that Norman has pulled a fast one on him. The only person who might believe Norman is his dreamy, distracted father, who seems to agree that the power of creation is enormous right before he drifts back off into his own world.

Norman is torn between being proud and slightly fond of his creation and wanting her to disappear entirely. But because he can't help but preen a bit, Miss Hargreaves feels snubbed and gaining in power, starts to create her own story, shucking off Norman's control entirely. And that is when bad things start to excelerate for Norman.

When I first read the description of this one, I was intrigued by the different sounding treatment of the Pygmalion myth and thought it was likely to be a gentle, sweet, and charming story (not that the original was either, mind you). But right from the beginning there is a sense of menace as Norman alludes to his being suspected of a crime despite there being no evidence. And as Miss Hargreaves grows and changes throughout the story, the sinister sense grows and certainly outpaces any light heartedness that tried to peek its head up. The tension builds, desperation becomes palpable, and the power of creation is acknowledged in this beautifully clad Bloomsbury Group re-issue of the 1939 novel. If I had had different expectations going into the novel, I might have liked it more than I did as it is really well written, starting out blurried and slowly coming into focus to shock the reader. I am still sorry it wasn't what I had expected but it's hardly fair to judge the book on my dashed expectations and I think that many other readers will appreciate it quite a lot.

1 comment:

  1. I have a Google Alert for Miss Hargreaves reviews, as it's my favourite novel, so I thought I'd come and say hi. Sorry it didn't live up to what you hoped for - I thought it was brilliant, how he could be sinister and funny at the same time. Better luck next time!



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