No Russian, no snow, but a book I read in November and didn’t quite get around to reviewing yet. Set in post-war Britain with restrictions and rationing still very much in place, this book is a study of individual characters and group dynamics, a morality tale that is more fun than preachy. It is also about a period of massive societal changes: there is a conflict between urban and rural lifestyles, the class system seems to be breaking (of course, we know it proved to be more resistant to change than one might have expected), and poverty is often just a misstep away.
I thought I was being very clever in noticing that some of the characters represented the Seven Deadly Sins, but it turns out that this is precisely what the author intended and every other reader was fully aware of it. There is a little bit of a tension to find out if any of the deadly sinners were ‘punished’, i.e. perished in the landslide which buried the hotel, as we are told in the prologue. We go back in time to a week before the tragedy and discover the eccentric and disparate guests who have all converged upon this Cornish seaside hotel.
Owing to financial constraints (and the firm belief that their younger sons need a private school education), the Siddals have transformed their large home into a boarding house. Although not a talented cook, Mrs Siddal is preparing all the meals, while her husband (SLOTH) lies around not doing very much other than making awkward, profound or witty observations about the world and generally annoying the guests. He did remind me somewhat of Mr Bennet from Pride and Prejudice. Their oldest son, Gerry, although a qualified doctor, does most of the dogsbody work around the place, as does the pretty maid Nancibel, because the housekeeper Miss Ellis doesn’t like hard work and would rather be sticking her nose into other people’s business and gossiping about them. Miss Ellis (ENVY) likes nothing better than seeing other people suffer:
This Socialist Government does not look after poor people like they promised but they have brought rich people down, which is one comfort.
One such rich family is Sir Henry and Lady Gifford, with their four children (three of them adopted). The wife and children spent most of the war safe and well-fed in the United States, and Lady Gifford does not understand why a mere inconvenience like rationing should spoil her diet, even if the others are left without food (GLUTTONY). She believes herself to be an invalid and therefore requiring extra care, but her husband feels that all of the sacrifices of his fellow countrymen can’t have been in vain. He does not want to move to the Channel Islands to escape income tax, he feels a sense of responsibility to improve society.
Widowed Mrs Cove has three daughters who seem like spectres in comparison to the bouncy Giffords, but the two sets of children befriend each other. The other guests cannot help noticing just how tight-fisted Mrs Cove is, taking her children’s sweet rations to sell on the black market, and possibly trying to swindle them out of an inheritance (AVARICE).
Also among the guests are Mr and Mrs Paley, who cannot bear to talk to each other after the death of their daughter. Mrs Paley does start unbending as she becomes involved in the plight of the children and young people around her, but her husband is so bound up in his grief, that he won’t let anybody help him (PRIDE). The Canon Wraxton (WRATH) is a late addition to the party, annoying everyone with his loud, bullying ways, and the disparaging way in which he treats his cowed daughter as an object.
Finally, we have the writer Anna Lechene (LUST), what one might nowadays call a ‘cougar’, always with an aspiring, attractive young writer at her beck and call, whom she promises to help get published some day. In this case, it is the somewhat feckless yet naively hopeful Bruce, who is her ‘secretary-chauffeur’, but then falls for Nancibel and resolves to become a better man. Anna also endangers one of the Gifford children, Hebe, by taking her to a rather louche party and getting her drunk.
It’s the Cove children who conceive of the idea to have a midnight feast on the coast. They are generous of spirit and want to share nice things with others, although they have next to nothing. So kind-hearted Nancibel convinces Mrs Paley and some of the others to pool together their rations and create a bit of a feast. Everyone is invited, but we can’t help but feel some satisfaction, like in the old-fashioned morality tales, that those who refuse to contribute or participate end up under the rubble.
With so many characters to portray, and some of them representing archetypes, you might be excused for thinking that they would feel a bit a pawn-like or flat in the author’s hands. Not at all! They are all richly layered and we gain insights into their psychology through a judicious amount of head-hopping from chapter to chapter, letters, conversations and observations about each other. All done with a lot of wit and charm – a complete delight!