Apricots at Midnight by Adèle Geras

My housemate Melissa (not to be confused with a different housemate Melissa, who has also written the odd book review for SIAB) wanted to borrow a book, and ended up with one I was given but have yet to read – Apricots at Midnight (1977) by Adèle Geras. As always, I encourage my friends to write reviews for SIAB. This is seldom taken up, but thankfully Melissa said yes, and wrote this fab review! Do (as always) make my guests feel welcome in the comments section… and enjoy the review:

Small pleasures. I picked this book off Simon’s shelf at his
first words of description, without waiting for the rest: ‘That one is a
children’s book.’ I love books written for children; the unpredictable-but-safe
plotlines, the freshness of the detail, the firing of the imagination; and this
one did not disappoint.

Actually, this is the sort of book that as a child I didn’t
really appreciate. It’s one of those books which describes someone’s childhood
memories, and why, I would wonder, should I read about another person’s
everyday life when my own was so interesting and there were plenty of books
about daredevil escapades, fantastic worlds, or true-to-life explorations? It’s
only through growing up (a little bit) that I’ve come to appreciate the beauty
of the everyday and of simple, happy memories.
This book is built around a quilt; a quilt sewn together,
patch by patch, by the narrator’s elderly relative Aunt Pinny, from fabrics
picked up throughout her life. Each patch is tied to a story, the cue to a
memory of long ago. The apricots of the title relate to the first ball Pinny
attended, a little girl sneaking down to join her working mother for a midnight
snack.
A child’s perspective is so different: everything is
fascinating, but nothing is truly surprising. For Pinny, the line between
make-believe and reality is not particularly important; there’s no
disappointment when the adventurer Major Variana admits his limp was gained by
dropping a crate of oranges on his foot rather than being bitten by a
crocodile, and no questioning of his reassurance ‘That was the only made-up
story, I promise you’. In her old age, Pinny retains this childlike ability to
take her experiences at face value, so that the tone of the book hinges
slightly on the fantastic.
The individual salient events, people and places slowly
build a picture of the beauty of Pinny’s daily life. The emergent character in
the backdrop is her mother: thrown from prosperity at the death of her husband,
and fighting to build a life for herself and her daughter on the strength of
her dressmaking skills. She is the constant in Pinny’s life, tying the book
together, providing stability and a structure. It is she who first suggests the
quilt and teaches a tiny Pinny to hold a needle and make her first stitches.
Like a fairy godmother, she can always produce something from whatever nothing
is to hand: a garden for a convalescent Pinny from scraps of flowered fabric;
an extra sixpence when Pinny’s allowance isn’t quite enough for the music box
she wants to buy; an overnight job at Mrs Triptree’s ball so that Pinny can see
the ladies in their beautiful costumes.
There is a chance for Pinny to be involved in everything she
does – sitting in on meetings with unusual and exotic guests, contributing a
not-so-successful stuffed zebra to the soft toy stall at the church fair,
cutting out the jam tarts for a picnic. Her tears and remorse on the day she is
delayed picking Pinny up from school, and gratitude to the teachers who took
the child home for tea and entertained her, is a moment of revelation for
Pinny:

It occurred to me then that I had not once, even in the
worst depths of my misery, thought what it must have been like for her, knowing
she would not be at the school gates, knowing that she was making me more and
more unhappy every minute she was not there.

Her selfless love and care for Pinny comes out at every
turn. On one occasion, she covers for her daughter, losing a rich client in the
process, when the little girl recovers a roll of cloth that she believes
belongs to the future king and queen of Borneo but was actually the client’s
curtains. I fell in love with her at the point when she stretches a tiny budget
to provide Pinny with bulbs for her garden:

I do not remember that we had trouble finding the money. I
was too excited at the prospect of my own garden. But now I can see that my
mother must have gone without something she needed or wanted, in order to save
what was necessary.

Her generosity is not reserved for her daughter alone: when
Pinny asks a visiting gentleman at a loose end to stay, she hesitantly but not
unwillingly opens her home to him until he is able to find his feet again.
To my delight, one of the stories turns out to take place in
Oxford. This is Pinny’s first taste of what she calls ‘the country’. ‘”It’s not
the proper country, Pinny,” my mother warned me. “Oxford is a large town, and
quite near.”’ Unperturbed, Pinny’s imagination runs wild: ‘Milkmaids in mob
caps and farmers in knee-breeches, small houses with roses growing round the
doors, stiles, carthorses, shepherds coming down from the hills at sunset,
wooden bridges curving over brooks.’
The reality is quite different, of course, but turns out to
be no less exciting. Not least, St Giles’ Fair, ‘the most splendid, exciting,
glorious fair in the whole world’, as Pinny’s Oxfordian friends, Miles and
Kate, delightedly inform her. The description is priceless, a snapshot of the
fair a century before I experienced it. Some things are quite different – the
long-banned prizes of live goldfish, the penny charge for each game, the steam
powering the organs. The exhilaration of the fair, however,
is unchanged over generations, and the bright colours of the rides which draw
the children’s attention, the reckless spending on hopeless attempts at
skewering a prize, the loud music and bustle of the crowd, sound tantalisingly
familiar.

Ten patches, ten stories; yet a quilt is so much bigger than
that. I’m left wondering what else is in there; the stories that Pinny would
not tell till her listener was older, the ones she perhaps would never tell at
all? 

5 thoughts on “Apricots at Midnight by Adèle Geras

  • April 1, 2015 at 1:50 am
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    Sounds delightful. And you've got me wondering with you about the rest of the stories.

    Reply
  • April 1, 2015 at 4:13 pm
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    This was one of my favourite books when I was younger. I have no idea why it was, nor really much about it now, but made me think I should re-read, having read this! Had forgotten about it until now!

    Reply
    • January 1, 2018 at 4:12 am
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      Yes it too was my personal mid childhood fav! So much so that this Christmas my Mum bought it me again!

      Reply
  • March 6, 2017 at 10:28 am
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    I remember reading this fondly as a child and spotted it last night when searching my bookshelf for a suitable theme for a cake club. A quick google of the book for inspiration and I come across your lovely review. Thank you so much for reminding me how wonderful the book is, I am now off to read it again, and to get baking!

    Reply

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