by L. P. Hartley
Hamish Hamilton, London: 1953
The story is prompted by an old man discovering in his possessions a box of 'treasures' from his boyhood which include a diary. The diary is filled assiduously up until a particular date and from then on it is blank. The events of the blank pages are ones that the narrator, Leo Colston has put from his mind for decades and yet, they are events that he feels have made his life what it is, at this end of his life, prompted by the diary he comes to remember them again. We are transported with him back to the glorious summer of 1900 when Leo was only twelve going on thirteen and is invited to stay at the home of a school friend. In a social milieu well-above anything he is used to Leo struggles to fit in but is taken under the wing of the young daughter of the house and he is soon engaged ferrying secret letters back and forth between Marian (with whom he is besotted) and Ted, a local tennant farmer.
To the reader, it is clear almost from the start what is going on but Leo is blissfully in innocence of the peril that he is in as the faciliator of a dangerous and forbidden relationship. One of the great charms and successes of the book is that Hartley finds just the right voice for a sixty-something year old speaking as his thirteen year old self. For all the Victorian schoolboy language and upper class bluster there is, at the centre of this story, a completely believable boy whose inner life is utterly true, even to a reader in the twenty-first century. Through the course of the novel Leo's innocence is gradually eroded. He becomes aware, for the first time of the subtle transactions of power between people in the adult world, contrasted so well with the black and white nature of power in a school situation. He is opened up to the idea of mixed-motives, he sees a real passion at work for the first time, he becomes aware of the fact that he is being used and slowly the truth dawns on him.
From about half-way through the book the reader is sure that disaster is around the corner and the building tension simply goes on and on until both reader and Leo are wound almost too tightly to continue. Of course there is a denouement, and the unwinding of the spring is explosive.
At the far end of the book we return to Leo as an old man. He is sure that it is these events which have contributed to his living a life alone, a chaste life, a life in which he has buried himself in facts and not emotions, where his passion has been for information and not for a person. It is this which leads some people to characterise this book as sad. There is sadness, certainly, but for me the tone is more wry and resigned... almost, but not quite, content.
The book is a modern classic. Much more and much better has been written about it than I could hope to get down here. Nonetheless, if like me you have had it in a pile of books to read for many years I can heartily recommend that it move to the top right away.