Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Crusoe's Daughter by Jane Gardam

Books don't fit into a true diagnosis of hoarding; that's my firm conviction. While I admit to waves of guilt when I rearrange my shelves and see books I haven't quite managed to read yet, I still give them a place to wait. Too many times to mention, when I've finished one book without another pestering me to read it, I've scanned my shelves and landed on just the right book at just the right time.

During this period of quarantine, I've had access to the library's electronic collections, both audio and print. Sometimes, I have found my time limit up before I've finished reading, and the book is whisked away to the next reader on the waiting list.

I'm also thankful that Parnassus Books still continued to deliver book orders, after having to abandon curbside pick-up.

My own book collection, though, has been a treasure trove through spring and into summer. Early this week, I was drawn to Jane Gardam's novel Crusoe's Daughter, which has been waiting for several years. The book, originally published in 1985, arrived by post a few years ago with a few others from the Europa Editions, including Old Filth, another novel by Gardam. It too had to wait its turn, richly rewarding my efforts when I finally decided to read it.  Likewise, Crusoe's Daughter hadn't come up in a single book discussion, so I'm not sure why I decided to read it now.

Set in a remote, marshy area of England in the first half of the twentieth century, the novel follows Polly Flint, a motherless child left with her two old aunts when her father leaves for sea, where he dies. Along with Mrs. Woods, their boarder, Polly meets a parade of people, housemaids, delivery boys, the local nuns, and the Ziets, a wealthy German family with children near her age, building a second home nearby.

Despite the title's suggestion, this is not a reimagining of Robinson Crusoe's abandoned offspring. Instead, Polly, who never attends school formally, is taught languages and music by her aunts and Mrs. Woods but spends much of her time reading and rereading Dafoe's novel Robinson Crusoe, eventually translating it into German and French and writing volumes of critical response.

While distanced from both world wars, Polly and the other residents of the Yellow House feel its effects in increasing but subtle measures. Not only does the novel unveil the evolution of Polly's character, but it also examines the structure of the English novel as well.

Crusoe's Daughter exhibits the subtlety one expects from a decidedly English novel, springing clever surprises, playing with language, and sending me searching for a pencil so I can make note of passages I want to recall or to discuss with the next person with whom I share this delightful book.

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