Few authors inspire excessive amounts of love and hate as Ivy Compton-Burnett. I first swore my love for ICB on this blog a year ago, but I do space out my ICB novels (they do have a tendency to be similar) and whilst on holiday I read Parents and Children (1941).
And what a lot of children there are – nine of ’em. I’ve left the book in Somerset, so I can’t remember all their names – actually, there’s a challenge, how many can I recall… Honor, Gavin, Graham, Daniel, James, Nevill [sic?]… and three others. They split neatly into three groups – three in the nursery, three in the schoolroom, three adults. As usual in ICB novels, not much happens – but when it does, it’s pretty drastic. Life-changing events are encompassed by lengthy, facetious discussions – gently vicious and cruelly precise, always picking up on the things said by others. Calmness permeates even the most emotional responses, and ICB’s writing is always astonishing in its use of dialogue. More or less all of it is dialogue, and though often sophistry, it is somehow also accurate about family dynamics.
Alongside the nine children, two parents and two grandparents are three governesses, various maids, a visiting family of three and a neighbouring family of three siblings. That makes at least 23 central characters – somehow each of them is individual, with their own distinct dialogue and personality. How she does this in fewer than 300 pages is astonishing.
As I said, giving plot would be a waste of time, especially since most of the major events happen in the last fifty pages or so. In fact, the blurb to my copy gave away more or less all the plot. What I will say is that any ICB fans will also love this one – I don’t think it as good as Mother and Son or A House and Its Head, so I’d recommend ICB newbies should start with one of those. But any ICB novel is so unlike any other author’s, and a real treat. Or, alternatively, a nightmare. Only one way for you to find out…