You might well know the name Dorothy Baker. A few of us read Young Man With a Horn for the 1938 Club, and Cassandra at the Wedding is another well-known book by her. And, when I saw The Street in 2011, it was Baker’s name that rang a bell – though, at that point, I hadn’t read her.
Here’s the curious thing. I think I’d suspected this before, but without confirming it – this Dorothy Baker is a different Dorothy Baker. While the famous one wrote about quirky things in America, The Street is about the working classes in the Black Country. I’ve dug around but not managed to find out much about this Dorothy Baker – except that she is, according to a library catalogue, connected with the BBC. Very mysterious, and something I’d forgotten to investigate until after I’d put it in my pile for the 1951 Club.
So, having read four extremely good books for the 1951 Club (one to be reviewed tomorrow), it’s about right that this one should only be OK. It’s certainly not a dud – but it’s very novel-by-numbers.
It’s all about Dora – a kind, anxious, emotional young girl living with her grandparents, having been more or less deposited on them by feckless (but slightly glamorous) parents. They’ve kept her three siblings, who never emerge from the shadows of the novel, but this unusual situation is never really alluded to – instead, Dora’s parents exist as occasional threats that she might be torn away from her life on the street.
While the novel is called The Street, we don’t see all that much outside of Dora’s grandparents’ house, and her school. And I think Baker fondly believes she has captured a snapshot of working-class life – which I absolutely can’t believe she has. There is the occasional moment of drunkenness thrown in to show ‘real life’, and poverty which demonstrates itself only in the miserly whinging of various passing uncles, but the characters mostly speak in the anonymous tones of middle-class stock characters. It could very easily have been a provincial house party.
The writing certainly isn’t bad – each scene is engaging, if a little earnest at times – but what holds The Street back from being a very good novel is the lack of momentum in it. There is something of a plot, mostly around the deaths and marriages of Dora’s relatives and her own (rather naive) budding into early adulthood, but not much pulls the reader through the novel. It wasn’t a chore to read by any means, but I would also quite happily have given up at any juncture without any real curiosity about what happened next.
We need light and shade, don’t we? It’s just as well that I didn’t get too exaggerated a view of 1951’s merits – consider this a slight lull before, tomorrow, I finish the week with my favourite of all five.