Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Great Lover (Jill Dawson)

--The blurb--
"In the summer of 1909, seventeen-year-old Nell Golightly is the new maid at the Orchard Tea Gardens in Cambridgeshire when Rupert Brooke moves in as a lodger. Famed for his looks and flouting of convention, the young poet captures the hearts of men and women alike, yet his own seems to stay intact. Even Nell, despite her good sense, begins to fall for him. What is his secret?"

--The review--
Historical and biographical fiction is a grey area requiring great sensitivity on the part of the author thanks to the great balancing act involved between poetic licence and past facts. Respect for history and the need to create a convincing story is never an easy combination to pull off - and thankfully, in The Great Lover, Jill Dawson largely executes this fusion of fact and fiction with finesse.

 One of the established rules of writing historical fiction is to not overburden the reader with history lessons. By 'framing' the story of The Great Lover with a letter from Rupert Brooke's real-life Tahitian daughter, Arlice Rapoto, Dawson doubtlessly hoped to introduce yet another nugget of fact to the reader. However, this aspect of Rupert Brooke's biography seems shoehorned in messily and in contrast to the rest of the book's succinct yet languorous style, as does the fact that the woman to whom Arlice is writing (Nell Sanderson) encloses Brooke's letters (the sections of the story voiced by Brooke are effective, but do not read in any way like letters). Simply splicing together Brooke's and Nell's versions of the same events is both compelling and competent without the needless addition of these extra elements. The only real narrative boost this opening could provide is to allow the reader to infer the course Nell's life took romantically - but this, too, is revealed by the end of the novel anyway.

Nonetheless, none of this stops The Great Lover from being a thoroughly enjoyable read, couched comfortably between literary fiction and romance. Beyond the more superficial yet still vital aspects of character and plot development, which are generally skilfully done, Dawson gives us much more to be impressed by and to contemplate. Aside from playing ironical mind games with readers regarding the true 'greatness' of the lover of the title, F Scott Fitzgerald-style, and deftly weaving history and poetry through the narrative, Dawson places us in the role of Nell and gradually erodes away at our own resolve. Along with the female protagonist, we begin as cynical stalwarts who are eventually reduced to vulnerable romantics, borne back into our own pasts by the immortal tale of 'the one that got away'. 

The anonymity provided by this classic plotline - which is presented by Dawson in a most original way by bringing together the famous poet and the indeterminate member of the public at his service - means that no prior knowledge of Robert Brooke or his poetry is required. While fans will almost certainly enjoy it, the story is less about Brooke than about the human condition, and the perennial questions of whether it is always right to reveal our true feelings, how far we should put others before ourselves, and if there really is just one person for each of us.

This golden combination of ethical probing, historical portrayal, literary artistry and gripping narrative is all done without resorting to mawkishness, and surely secures Dawson as a key player among today's elite novelists - and that can be said on the strength of The Great Lover alone, before even considering the author's other writings. The interplay between realism and romance as presented in The Great Lover provides ageless appeal, whether one is seventeen - as Nell is in the body of the story - or ninety - as she is at the beginning.

other works by Jill Dawson
White Fish with Painted Nails (1990)
How Do I Look? (1990)
Kisses on Paper (1994)
Trick of the Light (1997)
Magpie (1998)
Fred and Edie (2000)
Wild Boy (2003)
Watch Me Disappear (2006)
Lucky Bunny (2011)

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