Books of 1963: The Trouble-Makers by Celia Fremlin

published 1963


That night Katharine had a curiously vivid dream. Once again she seemed to be in the deserted cafeteria, but this time it was not Mary who was her companion, but a dark man in a raincoat. The raincoat was lightish in colour, shabby, and hung shapelessly from his sloping shoulders; and the man himself was dark , not merely in the sense of having dark hair and complexion, but more as if his whole face was enveloped in darkness; as if a deep shadow was thick upon him, hiding his features. At the beginning of the dream, Katharine was not paying much attention to the man; it seemed natural that he should be there. Her attention was wholly taken up with anxiety about the time.



observations: In an earlier entry this month – on Patricia Moyes’ Murder a la Mode – I explained the Books of 1963 challenge thus:

Rich Westwood, Mr Past Offences himself, does a roundup each month on his blog of Classic Crime in the Blogosphere , a meme in which Clothes in Books is proud to make regular appearances. For June, he suggested that prospective participants should concentrate on one year: the 1963 challenge.

The Moyes book was my 1963 book, but as it turns out, I can’t resist squeezing another one in before the end of June. Because Rich’s blog also reminded me of the wonderful Celia Fremlin – he quoted from the Shiny New Books site about her being re-published in ebooks by Faber.

It’s hard to find a category for Fremlin – if you use the word ‘domestic’ then it sounds as though they are cosy, and the books are from that. The settings tend to be suburban houses in the 1960s and 70s. The protagonist in this one is a married woman with children, a house, a husband and a job. She is vaguely dissatisfied, and so are her friends and neighbours. That could be any kind of book from 1963…

Specifically, there is trouble next door. Is a man in a raincoat haunting the neighbourhood? Is he a danger, a threat? Who did attack Mary’s husband Alan? Fremlin is terrific at two specific things: creating an atmosphere of tension and menace, and describing domestic life wonderfully well. I read this book many years ago – I think before I had children of my own – and it struck me then as very authentic picture, and now I am even more impressed. Then, I liked her heroine at the launderette being bothered about seeing her machine was ready before anyone else could point it out to her. Now, I appreciate her descriptions of children’s ability to say the wrong thing.

Despite the book’s being more than 50 years old, and the lives of women having changed dramatically in that time, I think everyone who reads it would recognize some of her observations on life – on children, on partners, on living together, on gossip. Katharine’s husband Stephen ‘always washed up in anger’, but not ‘out of spite’ – he’s bothered about the little mop, just like Adam in Cold Comfort Farm. And she has trenchant things to say about the power of gossip, and the competitive way women criticize their partners to others. Although some of the details are quaintly of their time (the description of the back-garden bonfire party has the children holding the fireworks…), there is still a lot of relevance today. And it is also a very chilling story.

The men in raincoats are from fashion ads. 

Comments

  1. Moira - It certainly does sound chilling. Those 'domestic' mysteries can sometimes be quite edgy and creepy. And there are some themes that transcend time, so that even 50 years after publication, a book can still feel relevant. I like the writing style in the snippet you've shared too. Does it flow that way throughout?

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    1. Yes, Margot, she writes very accessibly - it's an easy read, because compelling, but well-written too.

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  2. So why is it that I don't know about this author? My only explanations are the type of novel she is known for, which would not have been my favorite at the time, and the time period she wrote. Anyway, I will definitely try one of her books.

    And the men in raincoats are great.

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    1. She was very good, but really sank into obscurity for no good reason. I'm glad she's getting another look now...

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  3. Love Celia Fremlin. She lived such a long time, but was never to see her books revived, which is a shame (worse yet, we're still waiting).

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    1. I know - she's so clever and sharp, and she achieves her effects without waste: the books are (relatively) short and to the point. When she was older she sometimes wrote for Cosmopolitan magazine, of all unlikely places - that's where I first came across her, and I followed up and tried to find her books because I liked her articles.

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