Celia works at the Ministry in the post-war England of 1949 and lives in a London suburb with her beloved Aunt. Witty, fragile, quixotic, Celia is preoccupied with love — for her friends, her colleagues, her relations, and especially for her adored cousin Casmilus, with whom she goes on holiday to visit Uncle Heber, the vicar. Here they talk endlessly, argue, eat, tell stories, love and hate — moments of wild humour alternating with waves of melancholy as Celia ponders obsessively on the inevitable pain of love.
Alarm bells were ringing fairly early on with this one, it was all to do with the dreadful, disjointed, uninteresting conversation at a dinner party. A lack of speech marks didn’t help the book’s case either.
Getting over that hurdle early on, the book opened out into an assorted collection of meditations on the experiences of love and politics and the past, before becoming mildly irritating towards the end. This is a book that will probably polarise opinions of all who read it.
There is little to add to the above blurb in terms of storyline, you are getting precisely what you read there. It all rests on the quality of said writing and that is where this reader would have preferred more balance, what Smith says is much more interesting than the way She has written down. Whilst the whimsical structure and thought processes of Celia and co. work well enough, it is the writing itself that troubled me.
There is plenty of repetition of certain words, whether in the same sentence or throughout a conversation, it’s distracting to be told four times within a page that the same character is saying something maliciously, for example. Whether this writing is an intentional choice or through lack of a decent editor, I don’t know but it soon becomes tiresome. There is a richness to our language and often I was mentally inserting my own words to avoid the repetitiveness.
It all feels very English, the countryside setting in summer is delightful and I enjoyed being there. The novel possess a dreamy melancholia for the past (relationships and ways of life); as well as the uncertain future – to the backdrop of the Indian independence, and the waning of the British Empire – for the characters as well as the country.
The publisher preferred the book to be set after the war to correspond with the times, rather than the WWII setting that was the original manuscript. This is what gives the book a strange feel, slightly disjointed and fanciful which is no bad thing in this case. Had I not known about the changing of the time period I wonder how that would have affected my reading and enjoyment of the book.
Apart from the way in which it is written – which I could have forgiven were that my only real gripe – there was one more thing that slightly ruined my reading experience and led to a number of eye rolls. There was too many histrionics, especially towards the end, I find it hard to sympathise with people when they become plain annoying and childish.
It all feels quaint in today’s world but I did genuinely enjoy large portions of the book, the nostalgia of recalling long past feelings and evoking of places were the books main strengths. Approaching this I had no idea what to expect and got more out of it than I imagined, based on the strength of the first ten pages. This is a book of its time but retains a good offering of imagery and thoughts.