Wednesday 12 December 2018

God on the Rocks

Jane Gardam is a writer I've been aware of for years, and vaguely regarded as a Good Thing, without (as far as I recall) ever actually reading any of her novels. Now I've read one – God on the Rocks (1978), passed on to me by my cousin, who had just read it and wanted to know what I made of it. She had found parts of it brilliant and wholly convincing, but had reservations about the novel as a whole. Having read it, I find I share her admiration, but with fewer reservations. Once I'd got into it, I found it an exhilarating read, a real bravura performance by a very fine storyteller.
  Set in a rather dismal northern seaside town between the wars,  and playing out over the course of a heatwave summer, the action revolves around an unhappy eight-year-old girl whose home life is dominated by her father's devotion to a Brethren-like cult of Bible-bashers, the Primal Saints. Through her eyes, we discover a parallel world not far from her home – a country house that is now a genteel kind of lunatic asylum. These two worlds, both of them vividly drawn, become increasingly interwoven as an expanding cast of characters is introduced and we are taken into the heads of some of them, and into the past that has made them what they are.
  Having set up a complex of tensions, buried history and repressed emotions among these characters, all of whom are quite opaque to each other, Gardam sends the plot spinning towards a climax that blends high drama, tragedy and farce. God on the Rocks is one of those rare novels in which almost nothing that happens is predictable. I guess you could say there's something artificial about it, a kind of heightened reality – these characters do not feel like people you might meet on the street and recognise – but artificiality has its place, and I've always been rather partial to it. I think that even the flashforward ending – something that's generally best avoided – works in this case, with its fresh revelations and tying of loose ends, but then I was completely won over by the time that came along. This felt like a book I'll remember for a good while. Oh, and I forgot to mention something else that commends it – all this action, all these characters are accommodated in a mere 150 pages.


  1. I read Jane Gardam a long time ago. She has a special flavour all her own and can be extremely funny and sad. If you want to try another one try 'Bilgewater'. It's about a girl who is the only female in a school of which her father, Bill Green, is the Headmaster. She become's known to the boys as Bilgewater, a shortened version of Bill Green's daughter. It's uproariously funny at times.

  2. Thanks for the tip Guy – I'll look out for it.