Saturday, 10 September 2011

Review: Autumn Term by Antonia Forest

Autumn Term (The Marlows, #1)
Published: 1948
Series: The Marlows #1
First Read: Sometime before 2004
Times Read: 3
Status: Owned book (my edition: Faber, 2000)
Reason I Read It: I'd been told Antonia Forest is the Jane Austen of school stories - I was not disappointed.

Synopsis: Twins Nicola and Lawrie are the youngest of six sisters to start at Kingscote School.  They are determined to do as well as their elder sisters, but things do not go to plan.

First Line: "Train journeys, Nicola decided, were awfully dull."

Review: Rereading this book I was surprised by how many elements of the later books are present here, not just the brilliance of the writing and dialogue, but also in the characters and plotlines that are emerging.  There's Lois Sanger and her feud with Rowan and later Nicola; there's Marie Dobson and her general air of desperation; and there's even Miss Cromwell and her hatred of prefects.  All sorts of events are here which are going to affect later plots, but the book itself is self-contained.

The plot itself is fairly simple, as shown in the above synopsis.  Everything Nicola and Lawrie try to succeed in - entrance exams, sports, Guides - fails, either because of their own lack of education (they're behind because they've been ill a lot as children) or because of other people's actions.  Nothing happens that is beyond the bounds of reality, except that it's a fairly eventful term, and there are no sudden miraculous changes of fortune at the end.  The success that is achieved at the end is the result of the twins' own hard work and abilities, when they decide to do something they want to do instead of trying to emulate their sisters. 

If there is a fault with the novel, it's that Ginty and Karen Marlow aren't as fleshed out as they later will be.  They're still believable and differentiated from the rest of the family, but they aren't given the same attention as Rowan and Ann.  I think this may be because Forest planned to do a series in which each member of the family was focused on in turn, so she purposefully left them 'blanker' in order to utilise the others more.  It isn't a weakness of the novel for a first time reader, but as I've read the whole series I'm looking for things - especially from Ginty (bah, The Attic Term, bah!) - which aren't yet apparent.

For a first novel, this is a fantastic book.  I'd recommend it to someone even if they don't read school stories, albeit with the knowledge that the series is only going to get better as it progresses.

Five Reasons I Love It:
1) It takes school story cliches and plays with them.  Everything the twins try to do that is inkeeping with a recognised school story trope fails miserably.  There's even a point at which Lawrie imagines saving Lois from drowning, and then "a feverish and conscience-stricken Lois would...confess everything" (143), only Lawrie isn't really going to follow the traditional storyline, she's going to "jolly well let her drown.  And I'd let her see I was letting her drown, what's more" (143).  There aren't many school stories in which a heroine would have such thoughts, or in which she would be allowed to go unpunished for even thinking such a terrible thing.

2) Rowan Marlow and her snarky glory.  It continues to grow - my favourite future line is "my grief would be consolable" - but is already on display here, such as when she concedes a point to Ginty: "[a]ll right...[y]ou didn't cry.  It was an extraordinary coincidence that just that week you had such a very bad cold" (20).

3) The 'villains' are believable.  They're not hideous pantomime types, doing things because they're evil and devious and have no morals whatsoever.  A lot of the time, they're causing problems and dropping other people in it because they're trying to save their own skins - Marie Dobson is a particular example of this.  They're villains because they're weak, and it's this weakness (as well as Forest's strength as a writer) that prevents them from having redemptive moments in which they're 'fixed'.

4) All of the prose, especially the dialogue.  It's so finely crafted yet doesn't feel forced.  As I said above, Antonia Forest is often compared to Jane Austen and I think this, along with her ironic view of everything, is part of the reason.

5) The occasional flashes of insight: "[she]...was affected by the...uncertain feeling of guilt which arises from seeing one's secret ill-wishing regarding other people come true" (159) or "one couldn't...suddenly like people just because everyone else did, or forget that they had been fairly swinish, even if they were doing their best now" (241).  It ties in with how great the characters are, but everyone gets some deeper moments of characterisation, even if its only for a moment.  All of it adds depth.

Next: The Marlows and the Traitor (scheduled for Saturday 24th September)

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