Sunday, March 29, 2015

A Boy in the House by Mazo de la Roche

A Boy in the House
by Marzo de la Roche
Macmillan, London: 1953

This is a novella telling the tale of a thirteen year old boy called Eddy from an orphanage who has been given to two elderly sisters, a widow and a spinster, to help with work around the house. At the same time, a writer, Lindley, has rented out half of the sisters' house in order to have seclusion and quiet for a year to write the book he has always dreamed of writing. His intention is to keep himself to himself, to be polite but distant from the sisters. Of course, he soon becomes first fascinated by them and then embroiled in their odd lifestyle. The coming of the boy into the household turns out to be a catalyst for the fractious relationship between the sisters to boil over and they begin to use the boy as a pawn between them. All the while, Lindley is falling in love, with the boy.

Eddy is a curious mixture of innocence and somewhat ambivalent mischief. Much is made of a knife that he keeps with him, his 'treasure', the only thing he has from his father, and he has an unhealthy fascination with stories of stabbings from his Cockney roots with which he scares the boys from the neighbouring property. It is also clear that in the rivalry between the two sisters, he is not only aware of how he is being used (it begins with things as simple as one sister giving him a task and the other countermanding it) but he colludes with it. In the first instance this is simply because he enjoys watching their huge ding-dong arguments: later he aligns himself firmly with one sister against the other. Lindsey can see all of this but feels unable to intervene despite feeling more and more concerned about the boy's moral well-being.

For a while, the nature of Lindley's attraction to the boy is left airily unspecified, as it probably is to Lindley himself. We are told that it was something about Eddy's youth and youthful manner that attracted Lindley as though to an earlier version of himself. Also Eddy's vulnerability is stressed by his thin frame and his damaged foot and consequent limp, these things too bring an element of pity to the draw that Lindley feels towards him. When Lindley touches Eddy for the first time however, a hand on the shoulder, the effect is something he feels through his whole being. As the book gets going it becomes clearer to both the reader and to Lindley what the nature of the attraction is. Although it is never spelt out there is a telling passage in which Lindley watches Eddy and the neighbour boys swimming:

"The boys raced into the water, their naked bodies gleaming like wet gold in the moonlight. They looked unearthlily beautiful. Their ugly clothes thrown off like dark cocoons, they had emerged airy, graceful, free as birds. In and out of the water they dashed, splashing each other, rolling on the narrow strip of sand in an ecstasy of happiness, like young animals. Lindley watched them with delight, his eyes always resting on Eddy's agile little body. The handicap of his lameness was forgotten. He was graceful as a fish in his play."

Lindley's own awareness of his feelings for the boy is never fully developed but just at this moment watching Eddy swimming, Lindley sees one of the sisters also watching the boys. The sister does not see Lindley and so he watches her and sees a change in her expression as she watches the boys:  

"He had been delighting in the play of the boys, he thought, with the appreciation of the artist, but there was something sensuous in Mrs Morton's face."

There is subtlety throughout this book in the depiction of the moods and colours of Lindley's attraction to Eddy: it is the most fully realised part of the plot and Eddy is the most fully realised character. The relationship between the two sisters also has a certain realism and complexity to begin with but as the story progresses and the great crisis comes upon them all, driven by the arguments between the sisters, a crisis which will take Eddy's future into its maw as well, it becomes a little contrived and the suspension of disbelief a little strained. It is a shame too that Lindley's writing is not more a feature of the story, it feels a little tacked-on and the reader is always surprised whenever it comes up, suddenly reminded that the man is there in the first place to write a book. There is an intriguing moral issue at the end of the book too which leaves one mulling.

This is not quite the masterpiece it could have been but it is a very well written and haunting little book that does stay with you quite a while after putting it down. For a book that can be read cover to cover in three hours that's no small achievement. It is, in it's field, a little known book that deserves to be read more widely.

(A big thank you to John for pointing the way on this one.)

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