Saturday 4 July 2015

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

You have to take your time with a book like The Fountain Overflows. The writing is rich and clever and the family it describes are eccentric in so many ways you find your imagination having to work overtime to create an image of their lives. It is all in the detail - and there is such a lot of it, detail I mean. And that is what makes it all so wonderful.
    The novel is a fictionalisation of Rebecca West's own childhood and is told in the voice of Rose Aubrey. It begins when she is around eight and the family are moving again, not just house but cities, from Edinburgh to London. But first there is a country holiday to be got through, just Rose, her mother and siblings: her older sisters, Cordelia who is beautiful but overbearing, and Mary who is her best pal and has a similar talent for the piano, and younger brother Richard Quin who is sweet and knows how to please everyone he meets.
    The reason the holiday is an ordeal is because Rose's mother is awkward with the farming family who have supplied their lodgings, and because her father, a brilliant journalist with a talent for losing money, has gone off to start his new job and find them a house in London. Unfortunately he forgets to tell them where it is and this causes many anxious moments.
    More anxious moments pepper the book, as Rose's father takes on various political causes and loses more money, while Rose and Mary perfect their piano technique ready for becoming concert pianists and being able to salvage the family fortunes. Richard Quinn can survive on charm alone, although he is also musically gifted, while Cordelia struggles with the violin and her pride.
   At first the story seems to ramble along like this, creating a picture of this colourful family and delineating their difficulty in making anything like a normal life in London. But then West throws in several unusual events that bring in even more eccentric characters. These include what seems to be a poltergeist in the home of Mrs Aubrey's old friend, and later on a murder.
    While these events are extraordinary and certainly give the plot a bit of oomph, they also serve the purpose of adding depth to the characters of the Aubrey family. Though my favourite story thread in the novel is the ongoing battle of Cordelia to prove her worth as a musician, while her mother wrings her hands in despair declaring that she plays Bach as if it were Beethoven and has absolutely no taste. Surprisingly this doesn't prevent her from acquiring the aid of a music teacher at school, the odious faux-bohemian Miss Beevor, and even giving concerts.
    There is such a lot to enjoy in the novel, particularly the faultless language which is full of wit and insight. West's portrait of what it can be like to be eccentric in a changing world is at times painful and yet wonderful at others. I can't believe I have never read Rebecca West before. Virago have done a stunning job of recognising the talents of early twentieth century women writers and I shall be hunting out more novels by West and others like her.

No comments:

Post a Comment