A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens

I used to walk past Bernice Rubens’ books in the library, thinking they were a little too literary, a little too serious for me. But in recent months I’ve found myself enjoying books by authors I thought weren’t for me, and so when this book popped up on a list of recommendations I took a closer look.

The opening sentences were striking;

“Miss Hawkins looked at her watch. It was two-thirty. If everything went according to schedule, she could safely reckon to be dead by six o’clock.”

I was intrigued and, although the story promised to be dark, but there was simplicity, clarity and real humanity on the sentences that followed, and so I had to read on.

I learned that Miss Hawkins had been raised in an orphanage, that she had worked in the same factory office for forty-six years, and that on reaching retirement age she thought that her life was over. She lived alone, she had never acquired the knack of making friends and building relationships, she just moved forward through life flowing the rules she was given in  the orphanage.

A Five Year SentenceMiss Hawkins’ plans were thrown into disarray when she was presented with a retirement gift. A five year diary.

She saw that as an instruction to live, and she decided that her diary would direct the rest of her life.  So she didn’t record what she had done, she recorded what she was going to do. And when she did it she happily ticked it off in red crayon.

She started with small things. Window shopping. A trip to the library. A new knitting project. And as she gained in confidence her ambition grew.

It was lovely to read. I suspected that Miss Hawkins had always wanted to live, that she had just wanted somebody – or, as it turned out, something – to guide her.

Miss Hawkins decided that she should meet a man. And that the library the library would be a happy hunting ground. It was – she met Brian, who was there to change his mother’s library books.

Brian was as much of a lost soul as Miss Hawkins; he had never quite escaped from his domineering mother.

But the story turned dark, as Brian found in Miss Hawkins a solution to his own unhappy life. Miss Hawkins reflected on her troubled childhood in the orphanage, and made plans for a happy ending that I knew would never be. And the diary counted down the days, What would happen at the end of five years?

The story that plays out is simple, engaging, and very, very cleverly constructed. It’s beautifully written, and the style suits the story and the characters wonderfully well. The ending made perfect sense, and yet I hadn’t know quite what it would be until we got there.

I hoped for the best for Miss Hawkins, but I feared the worst as she became increasingly detached from reality. And I wanted Brian to get his come-uppance, though I was less than sure that he would.

If only the diary had told Miss Hawkins that she would meet another single lady, that they would be friends and companions, how nicely that could have played out … but that would be a different story …

This story is strange and dark, but it is also poignant, and it tells some very real truths. The way it evolves is wonderful. I don’t usually like comparing authors, but this is the best way I can think of explaining without giving too much away.

  • As I read the early chapters I thought of Margery Sharp.
  • As I read the middle chapters I thought of Muriel Spark.
  • As I read the final chapters I thought of Barbara Vine.

Three wonderful authors, but Bernice Rubens had a voice and a style that was entirely her own.

I can see half a dozen of her books in the library’s fiction reserve, and I am sure that I’ll be ordering one of them in before too long.

5 responses

  1. Oh my gosh, Jane, that first sentence would certainly make me want to read more! I’ll have to see if our libraries carry her work. I haven’t read Muriel Spark or Margery Sharp yet, but I enjoy Barbara Vine’s books very much (though not the last two or three).

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