September (by Rosamunde Pilcher)

I love Rosamunde Pilcher’s writing, and have collected all her books over the years. I think I’ve read them all at least twice, but like to re-read every nine or ten years. I was long overdue re-reading this book, a saga style novel of over 600 pages, but finally picked it from my shelves a week ago, and have just completed it.

The main story of ‘September’ is the planning and build-up to a dance, given for a young woman called Katy who is approaching twenty-one. However she doesn’t feature much in the book at all, and neither does her mother, who comes up with the idea several months before the event. Instead, the various storylines revolve around two families who live in the Scottish village nearby: the Airds and the Balmerinos.

I remember, when I read it before, that I found it a bit hard, sometimes, to remember exactly who was whom, so I made more of an effort with the names this time. Violet Aird is easy; she’s in her late seventies, a large and comfortable woman who lives on her own. Her son Edmund is married to Virginia, who is rather younger than he is, and it’s his second marriage. He has a grown-up daughter Alexa who lives in London, from his first marriage, and eight-year-old Henry.

Archie is Lord Balmerino, traumatised and disabled by being in the army in Northern Ireland during the ‘troubles’, and his wife, Isabel, works very hard to keep the finances afloat. They have two children too: Lucilla is backpacking around Europe at the start of the book, and Hamish, who is twelve, is mostly at boarding school. Archie has a sister, Pandora, who eloped twenty years previously with a married man, and has never returned, though they keep hoping she will…

We meet each of these people and other friends and neighbours in their homes, getting to know them gradually, entering into their lives. I particularly liked (though I had forgotten) that Alexa becomes friendly with Noel Keeling, who was an important part of Pilcher’s best-known book ‘The Shell Seekers’. Lucilla and her travelling companion Geoff go to stay with Pandora in Majorca, and everyone gradually starts to focus on the upcoming party.

The first few chapters take place in May, and the book gradually moves through the months, focussing in snippets on different characters, their storylines intertwining, and learning more about each of them. Pilcher has a great gift of characterisation, particularly for children and the elderly; I found myself liking Violet very much, and also Edie, who works as a home help for her, but is also one of her oldest friends.

Henry, too, is a delightful little boy, and one of the subplots involves growing tension between his parents; his father wants him to go to boarding school but his mother is convinced he is not yet ready. I remember finding this particular story very stressful when I first read it, particularly when Henry takes matters into his own hands… but liked it so much better this time around.

I was also aware of other things that are not revealed until the final chapters; I had forgotten those relating to Archie and an old friend of Virginia’s, but had remembered most of the Pandora storyline, shocking first time around, but movingly done.

There are many sensory details woven into the novel which I took the time to read and savour rather than skimming, and many conversations and events which I had completely forgotten. Overall, it’s a wonderful book; perhaps, since it takes place over just four months, it’s not technically a saga - yet in the course of those months we learn a great deal about not just the present but the previous generation of the families concerned.

I don't move in the kinds of circles Pilcher writes about - shooting parties and high class dinner parties are not my scene, and the thought of sending a small child to boarding school is an anathema, not something I would ever expect. The amount of drinking is foreign to me too, and the amount of smoking rather shocking, considering that the book was written as recently as 1990. It feels rather older, though, and it's a testament to the author's writing skill that even people so far removed from my own experience came to life and got under my skin.

Highly recommended. I am already looking forward to reading it again in another ten years or so.

Review copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

1 comment:

Bonnie Hamilton said...

Thank you for your review. I was having trouble keeping the characters straight. You helped me on that score. Enjoyed your thoughts.