Mary George of Allnorthover
The eponymous heroine of Lavinia Greenlaw's debut novel, Mary George of Allnorthover, feels hopeless. As she stumbles around a rural southern English landscape, Mary George experiences an almost startling lack of interest in her own destiny. At 17, she is the reluctant protagonist of her own life. Content but by no means happy, she reads books in her stale, cramped room in a small house in Essex and gets high with her only friend, Billy, on the banks of the local reservoir. Mary is firmly stuck in the middle of nowhere, with neither the energy nor the imagination to trace a path out.
Then she is uprooted. At the beginning of a long, steamy summer at the height of the mid-1970s fuel crunch, Mary's drab routine is disturbed when Tom Hepple, the troubled prodigal son of a local family, thinks he sees her walking on water. Tom's belief that Mary is a sort-of angel pitches him into a public and increasingly disruptive obsession with her. As the summer slogs forward, Tom's fixation dredges up the long-suppressed secrets of Allnorthover and frays the fabric of Mary's life, perhaps beyond repair.
What saves the book from being relentlessly depressing is the quality of author Lavinia Greenlaw's prose. Like Thomas Hardy, whose rich detailing of the topography of his characters' lives made Tess of the D'Urbervilles transcend its potential to be a dour morality tale, Greenlaw has a poet's sense of language and a production designer's eye for detail. The book is ripe with brief and alternately hilarious and heartbreaking scenes of stunning clarity, as when Mary first encounters the battery of smells--scorched hair, ammonia, and "synthetic scents of lily of the valley, Parma violet, lilac, and mint"--in the town's beauty parlor, or when she describes the hand of a dying woman: "Those tiny bones and the papery skin--it was like a reptile's wing."
At times, Greenlaw's prose labors under a battered nostalgia, relying on a breathless catalog of period details--Led Zeppelin, disco, and glam rock; punk, pot, and police brutality--to convey a sense of time and place. But she mostly pulls it off, vividly capturing the contradiction of a static backwater town struggling with the rapidly changing world around it. Most of all, she manages to give her dreary, myopic heroine a much-needed injection of purpose, without making her into a Cinderella cliché. One gets the sense that Mary will carry on and eventually find her place in the world--beyond Allnorthover, far from hopeless.