Larchfield by Polly Clark
Wystan Hugh Auden, the British poet known best by his first initials, is restored to his given name and to full, fleshy magnificence by Polly Clark in her debut novel Larchfield. Clark takes as her inspiration Auden’s short spell at the titular prep school in the English town of Helensburgh, during a period in the early 1930s when the poet was a public school teacher.
History is overwhelmed by entrancing fiction when poet Dora, in or about the present day, moves to Helensburgh from London with her husband Kit. Their daughter Bea, premature but healthy, arrives soon after. Firm parallels are drawn: at Larchfield, Wystan is not just teacher but defender of a vulnerable boy from the twin terrors of homesickness and epidemic bullying and sexual abuse, while at home, Dora slips into a quicksand of paranoia. She and Kit have bought the downstairs apartment of a house whose other tenants, a resentful older couple, practice performative piety and sic social services on the new mother.
Kit, an architect 15 years Dora’s senior, is distracted by the furious labour of building a business, so mother spends almost all her time alone with child. After learning of her literary hero Auden’s historical proximity Dora thinks of writing a book about his time at Larchfield, but when fabulous artist friends visit from London she sees herself through their eyes – uncreative, frozen in drudgery, that Oxford PhD a mere piece of paper – and shrinks inward.
Likewise, Wystan is unable to express his real self. The now-pat phrase ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ could have been written for him, who finds escape only in hedonic trips to Berlin with his friend Christopher Isherwood. In England, elaborate deceptions are the cursed work of the gay man who wants to avoid either gaol or crushing loneliness.
The condensing haze through which Dora comes to view her environs could be ascribed to post-partum depression, or the discomfort of neighbourly hostilities, or the glory of falling in intellectual love – first at a distance, and then at head-spinningly close quarters – with a great poet.
And that’s the beauty of this novel. Clark is the least didactic of writers, and each reader will have a different take on her brand of magic realism, which starts with a message in a bottle and then smashes that romantic B-movie cliché by entwining Wystan and Dora in a beautiful and unconditional friendship. Such narrative transgression is not rare – see Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life or Rainbow Rowell’s Landline – but it is rarely pulled off to such thrilling or euphoric effect. Tell me, Clark says, that you do not recognize the power of words to save, to soothe, to resurrect, to connect people who live decades or oceans away from one another.
Larchfield is a glorious work, sophisticated but with an endearing innocence. It extols language and the people who give their lives to fashioning it in ways that teach us about ourselves. Clark invites us to follow Dora into her dream state, to relinquish skepticism and be reminded all over again why we read, and what life-affirming goodness can come from plunging, faithfully and wholeheartedly, into the page.
Previously reviewed on Coast.co.nz
Reviewer: Stephanie Jones