|Jan/Feb 2011 Book Reviews|
Random House. 2010. 136 pp.
ISBN: 978 0 2240 7817 7
Tamara Drewe is a young woman whose reappearance in the small English village of Ewedown creates a stir, especially amongst the men. She is, as Posy Simmonds' superbly drawn graphics show, a pretty, nubile, sexily dressed young woman: "a beautiful, fecund creature," as Dr Glen Larson, an American academic sojourning at the writers' retreat of Stonefield, bemusedly describes her as a "hot patootie" (whatever that might be). And the expressions on the faces of the other people present speak volumes: Beth—unsure; Andy—assessing her covertly; Nick—anxious.
And why should Nick Hardiman be anxious and immediately leave the garden? Beth, his wife, has her suspicions, as well she might. Beth and Nicholas who have run Stonefield for 25 years, have what Beth calls 'an open marriage'. She tolerates his 'flings', because, she claims, he needs them and she doesn't: "Affairs are OK, up to a point. Lying about them is not." Nick, however, is a master of deviousness, after all, this is what he writes about in his highly successful crime novels, and Beth knows that "lulling the spouse" is something he wrote about very perceptively in one of his books.
To say that Tamara's love life is the core of this story, is to miss the richness Posy Simmonds creates around it. Her individual, elegant drawings bring the village and the people to life, and her sense of fun is wonderful. It can be no accident that Dr Glen Larson, "translator (MFA, University of Arkansas, PHD. Columbia, currently Visiting Professor at London Medial University)," and the source of a great deal of the fun in the book, looks just like Bill Bryson. They must be good friends. Or, by now, sworn enemies. There is a lurking famous poet, too, who I suspect may have a living double. Simmonds shows Ewedown as a typical English village which is suffering the effects of modern life on the small farms and small villages which are within easy driving distance of London. Local services are non-existent. Its teenagers are bored and find the usual destructive and illegal distractions. Their parents are on benefits. The "gentry" are bad tempered and know little about the land, and everyone is keen to know every-else's business.
Amongst all this Beth and Nicholas Hardiman run Stonefield, a "working retreat" which is advertised in terms of a writer's heaven, with all the services a writer might ever want, and "Far from the Madding Crowd." Glen's loves the "luxury, the brazen comfort" of it but knows that it has all the ingredients to corrupt a writer and keep him from his work: "I mean," he asks, "should a writer live like a pig in shit and expect the Muse to call?."
Stonefield is Beth's creation. She runs the 16 acres of farmland and the house, keeps the guests happy and well-fed, and at the same time she reads and types Nick's work, acts as his editor, researcher, critic, advisor, and deals with his mail and his appointments so that he can seclude himself in his shed and write the best-seller which keep them in business. Essential to Beth's running of the place is Andy Cobb, whose family had to sell Winnard Farm which they had owned for generations, and the farmhouse of which Tamara has recently inherited from her mother,.
Andy is understandably scathing about "incomers." He complains to Glen about "rich bastards" who come in and transform the village with "Townie crap," hanging baskets and the like. But Andy has a soft spot for Tamara, whom he knew before she went to London, began writing a gossipy column for a newspaper, had "a nose job" and became glamorous. Beth describes Andy as "an open honest sort of bloke" and Glen notes the pungent bouquet around him of "earth, dog, tobacco, engine oil..."; but Andy always seems to say the wrong thing to Tamara. And, anyway, he is soon outclassed by the appearance of Ben Sergeant, ex-drummer and song-writer of the famous indie rock band, Swipe, whose designer stubble, aggressive existential angst, and dislike of "wankers," "middle-aged tossers," and country life in general, upset the whole village. All except one local teenager, Casie Shaw, who is infatuated and obsessed with him.
For Casey and her friend Jody Long, Tamara is "Plastic Fantastic," glamorous and lucky. As an alternative to hanging out in the empty bus-shelter, smoking and reading chick-mags, they let themselves into Winnard Farm whilst Tamara is in London, try on her clothes, sample her alcohol, and discuss boys, doing IT, and losing their "V Plates." For fun, on St Valentine's day, Casey sends a sexy, inviting e-mail from Tamara's laptop to Ben, and copies it to Andy and Nick. The ramifications of this involve everyone at Stonefield and, ultimately and most unexpectedly, lead to two deaths and a happy ending.
Posy Simmonds' ear for dialogue is superb and her characters are people you can warm to, laugh with, and understand. The story proceed in pictures, speech and thought bubbles and in small blocks of text. Tamara's newspaper column "Away From it All," appears in fragments which express her views and her style (not "Shakespeare" but not as bad as Nick's sarcastic "Eurchh yuk" would suggest). Beth's initial revenge on Nick' devious, adulterous behaviour is satisfyingly appropriate. And the frames depicting the difficulties of getting pen to paper for Glen, Tamara and Nick, will ring a bell with any writer: Glen picks his teeth, cleans his nails with a pencil, eats or just sits; Tamara agonizes over deadlines; Nick inhabits his own little universe and writes as if in a snow-storm bubble paperweight when not distracted by Tamara and sex. Nick and Glen engage in some subtle writers' rivalry. There are some caustic comments about Literary Festivals. And, on the rural side, Cows, mating goats, plucked poultry and uncontrollable dogs all play their part in this funny, perceptive, and entertaining book.
No wonder it has been made into a British film which has already had rave reviews.