03/08/2015

So Long at the Fair (by Jess Foley)

I had never heard of Jess Foley.  I would probably never have done, but for a gift from a friend a few years ago. I liked the cover, but it’s a longish book and it sat on my to-read shelf for ages until I decided to read it, at last, in the past few days.

‘So long at the fair’ starts well. Set in a village in the UK in the middle of the 19th century, we first meet 12-year-old Abbie who’s worried about her mother’s frequent disappearances at night. A picture is drawn of a close lower middle-class family; Beattie, the eldest, is already ‘in service’, and Eddie, the only boy of the family, is a farm worker. Abbie has just left school and will be applying for a job as a maid within the next few days. There are two younger girls, too. They’re all close to their father, but their mother is unpredictable, often distant, never contented.

When their mother leaves home it’s no surprise, despite being shocking in the era. Abbie has to take charge of the household rather than working for someone else, and she does it well, bringing up her younger sisters until they are old enough to leave school and go into service.

The narrative skips several years and we next meet Abbie at 18, having a day out with her older sister, visiting a funfair. They have a good time, and Abbie meets a handsome young man who almost takes advantage of her.. but not quite. Unfortunately her dallying means that she and Beattie have to walk home alone, and they are suddenly accosted by two inebriated and violent men….

The opening of the story doesn’t even hint at the horrors that follow. The rest of the book feels like a kind of soap: it’s full of violence, tragedy, betrayal, and the loss of more and more loved ones. There are some pleasant interludes, but then it seems that things are getting dull, and yet another terrible scene is introduced. I kept reading - it’s not a difficult read, and I wanted to know what would happen; by the time I was about half-way through I was eager to get to the end, just to be finished with all the tragedies, piled higher and higher.

The writing, which started so well, becomes tedious after a while, too. Conversations are stilted, full of platitudes and exchanges that add nothing to the story or the characters concerned. There’s a lot of introspection too, but it’s not just Abbie’s; viewpoints switch even within a scene, making the reader feel like a fly on the wall rather than being involved in any of the characters. Perhaps that’s just as well, because Abbie becomes less and less likeable after the mid-way point of the book. The male characters are all a great deal more likeable and believable than the female ones.

Abbie does well as a village school teacher when she has to confront a difficult situation, and makes a decision that really never makes sense. And from then on, the book goes downhill. Quite apart from all the horrors that develop thick and fast, Abbie develops an obsession and becomes unreasonable, irritable, and rude. She’s plagued by a nightmare, but despite being - supposedly - the most intelligent of her siblings, she somehow can’t figure out what it means, despite it being obvious to the reader.

Moreover, Abbie confuses love with obsession, and resists all attempts to help her figure it out; then suddenly someone mentions what’s going on and it all apparently makes sense to her, although the explanation given is hardly the most lucid.

After the first couple of chapters, I thought I was going to enjoy this book. After the first and unexpected set of tragedies, I was less enamoured, but hoped it would be more positive. By the mid-way point I was becoming frustrated with the style… and by the end I was relieved to have finished.

The ending is, in a sense, hopeful; Abbie does at least come to her senses, but her emotional state isn’t real, and didn’t move me. I should have been in floods of tears at the horrors of the final chapters, but by that stage she felt wooden and unbelievable.

I had felt through much of the book that the author had no insight at all into the way a mother's mind worked, and that perhaps the author disliked women in general. It came almost as a relief to learn, when looking for an author's site to link to, that Jess Foley is in fact a pseudonym for a male writer.

I don’t wish to be sexist, but it certainly explained why the women in the book - and particularly Abbie - feel so two-dimensional and hard, and why the thought processes they go through are unrealistic and lacking in emotion.

Not recommended.

Review by copyright 2015 Sue's Book Reviews

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