Larchfield by Polly Clark tells the story of two poets in an unlikely friendship. Dora is an aspiring poet and academic who grew up and studied in England. Recently married and with child, she has to move to Scotland when her husband accepts a new job opportunity. Her husband, Kit, is Scottish and moving to the small town called Helensburg seems like he is coming home and Dora can tell that by how well he adjusts to their new environment. She isn’t adjusting to the small town life in Scotland at all. Mother to a premature baby, living below extremely hostile neighbours and feeling like she simply don’t belong takes a toll on Dora.
She learns that a poet she admires, Wystan Auden, have lived in Helensburg in the 1930s as well. One of his most admired work was written when he resided in Helensburg while he taught English and French to boys at a school called Larchfield. Apart from having being a poet in common with Mr Auden, she feels more connected to the man she admires when she learns that he was as much an outsider as she currently is. Wystan was homosexual, during a time when it was illegal. He regularly travelled to visit his long-time friend in Berlin, a city where his sexual orientation seemed to be overlooked. Until the end of 1930s when the Nazis came into power…
It would seem that Dora is suffering from post-natal depression, but of that I cannot be sure as it’s only my assumption. However, her circumstances definitely leads her to desperately wanting to escape her reality. Her reality being constantly judged for her mothering skills, from both her husband and the authorities. She also feels like she isn’t getting the support that she craves from him. This desperation results in her finding herself in this unlikely friendship with Mr Auden, after she finds a note handwritten by the poet himself and she tries to make contact.
What I mostly admired from this novel is the writing style and the way the author has captured the atmosphere of the setting as well as the emotions and circumstances the characters found themselves in. There was no doubt that I felt nervous for Wystan, especially when he was almost beaten because of his sexuality. The animosity towards Dora and Wystan were palpable and I couldn’t help but felt sympathy for both of them, but mostly for Wystan.
It’s also interesting how the author explores the sensitivity of a creative person and what inspires them to create their art and how volatile that process can be. For instance Wystan struggles to make progress with his poems when the thing that inspires him (whether that be a place or a person, i.e a muse) isn’t steadfast.
The story’s ending is a bit confusing for me, but there’s a good reason for that ambiguity that has a lot to do with Dora and her struggle with mental illness. I found the writing to be lyrical and enjoyable. The character Wystan and his story is also a fictional retelling of the (deceased) poet W.H.Auden. Some of his poetry are quoted in this book and it is really lovely.
Disclaimer: I received this book from Jonathan Ball Publishers for review consideration
Image: my own
Bookmark featured in the image is by the lovely Isi