Larchfield by Polly Clark

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Larchfield by Polly Clark

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Luke Marlowe
Reviewed by Luke Marlowe
Summary: A powerful tale of isolation told across decades – Larchfield is a beautifully written exploration of humanity, loneliness and growth.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: March 2017
Publisher: riverrun
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1786481924

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It's early summer when a young poet, Dora Fielding, moves to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland and her hopes are first challenged. Newly married, pregnant, she's excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity. She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong. As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether. Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Wystan H. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on success and society in London. Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected - rightly - of homosexuality. Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears.

I'm a huge fan of Christopher Isherwood, as you may have guessed from some of my previous reviews. Tales of his life often mention his friend W.H Auden, and whilst I was familiar with some of Auden's most famous poems, I wasn't all that familiar with the man himself. Author Polly Clark found herself connected to Auden by both choice of career and location, and has expanded upon that greatly in this fantastic novel, weaving aspects of Auden's life in to a present day tale, and bringing a long dead poet to brilliant life. Clark is a Canadian poet who some years ago moved to Helensburgh in Scotland, close to where Auden lived for some years and wrote The Orators, a long form poem. Feeling isolated and alone in Helensburgh, Clark found herself crafting a story that connected Auden to a modern woman feeling isolation and loneliness – and it makes for a powerful and moving read.

Clark has clearly put a lot of herself and her own experiences into the character of Dora, and it makes for reading that can, at times, feel uncomfortable – Clark hits emotional beats with her characters that often take the reader by surprise with their sheer power, and it takes a while to get used to quite how intimately we enter Dora's psyche – but given that the character is undergoing a raw, uncomfortable and isolated experience, it's only right that the readers shares in those innermost of feelings, gaining empathy for Dora from the off. I often find that in books similar to this, where the reader is given stories occurring in two different time periods, one always appeals more than the other – but Clark has balanced her writing and characters perfectly to ensure that her two timelines are entirely complimentary, guiding the reader through two different lives but ensuring that their attention never dips for a moment.

Auden's story line is just as compelling and emotional as Dora's – it's rather fascinating to see such a well known historical writer be brought to life in such a way that fully develops and explores the character of the man, whilst staying fully respectful and in awe of the body of work he created. Having Dora be a fan of Auden helps the audience see him through her eyes, so even if, like me, the reader hasn't read a huge amount of Auden, his importance and talent are never forgotten, and his humanity is explored with care and tenderness – reaching out across the decades to make Auden a truly contemporary character, whose journey is every bit as important as Dora's.

Moving, powerful and immensely readable, Larchfield is a book of isolation, growth, love and friendship. Hugely recommended and fantastically written, author Polly Clark is a huge talent and one I'll be keen to watch out for in the future. Many thanks to the publishers for the copy. For further reading I strongly recommend H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald – a book that, much like Larchfield contrasts a tale of contemporary emotional turmoil with that of a well known author, and both make for incredibly beautiful reading.

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