Several Persephone Books called me from the shelves, quite sure that they were the book I should read this week-end though. I deliberated for quite some time, but in the end I was contrary.
I picked up the book that was sitting quietly, not making any attempt to draw my attention.
The idea of a novel in verse, albeit blank verse, rather intimidated me, but I put my faith in Persephone.
The opening caught my attention. Mrs Delmer, mother of Lettice and wife of the doctor in charge was visiting a “Special Hospital”, an institution for unmarried mothers and young women with venereal disease, determined to do good works and to show her support for her husband.
The bleakness and horror of such a place; the staff’s understanding of that, and that Mrs Delmer’s efforts must be tolerated; and Mrs Delmer’s embarrassment when she misreads situations are all caught perfectly.
But Mrs Delmer is determined to get things right, determined that she and her husband will do as much as they can to give help and support. They will even take a young woman into their home, and reunite her with her infant son.
Their concern is laudable, but of course it will affect their daughter.
A lovely picture is painted of Lettice, eighteen years old, spoiled, uneducated and uninformed, and yet charming. And it is easy to feel sympathetic towards Lettice, because it is so clear that she is the product of her upbringing and because she is so clearly ill-equipped to deal with what life may throw at her.
The arrival of Flora Tort and her son Derrick is not a success, but the Delmers persist.
They can’t understand what is happening to their daughter, that the disruption of her home life, her rejection by the young man with who she thought she had an understanding, will hurt her deeply and lead her to become estranged from her family.
Lettice’s life takes a downward spiral.
She is in many ways infuriating – stubborn, proud, and so often failing to understand the people and the world around he – and yet there is a vulnerability, a feeling that Lettice really cannot cope, so that it is quite impossible not to feel for her.
And her story is counterbalanced by the story of her family, as it evolves into something very different.
Lettice’s is a dark story, of depression, abortion, suicide, despair, death … but it is also a story of faith, hope and redemption.
The characterisation is lovely and the psychological insight is acute. But the failures of communication and understanding are infuriating, and so sadly believable.
I’d love to say more, i’d love to quote, but I’m afraid I can’t without having to say and explain too much.
And the verse? I have to say it works wonderfully well, giving the story and the characters room to breathe and grow, and at the same time giving the story just the right rhythm and urgency.
Lettice Delmer is not a comfortable book, and I found it very unsettling, but it is both moving and compelling.
And certainly worthy of its dove-grey jacket.