A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“There can’t be too many people, especially of my age, who find out who they are via Wikipedia.” Read any of the myriad self-help books on How to Become a Successful Novelist and they will all tell you the same thing: the opening line of a novel is the most crucial line in the book. It sets the tone, establishes the narrative voice and, if it’s doing its job properly, drags you into the world the author has created. The wry, deadpan, come-hither opening of Penelope Farmer’s Goodnight Ophelia succeeds on all counts. Our narrator is Jane Ophelia, known as Jo to her family. We never learn her surname, because it’s of no relevance. Having worked her way through four husbands and numerous lovers, she is an elderly woman receiving, and barely tolerating, end-of-life care; dying from a cancer she might have avoided if only … And that ‘if only’ is the pivot upon which the entire story turns. Jo was raised by her step-father, the unimaginative but kindly and decent man who offered her mother – another Ophelia – respectability through marriage when a brief liaison in pre-war Paris left her pregnant and unmarried in a world where ‘nice’ girls didn’t and ‘decent’ boys wouldn’t want to marry them if they did. Deserted by her mother at the age of three, Jo grew up with only an old photograph and a hazy memory of her, unaware – at least until her early teens – that the man she called Daddy was not the man who had sired her. That realization … that she knew nothing about either her mother or her father … would shape her whole life, colour her relationships with husbands, lovers and children and drive her, eventually, to discover the truth about her parentage. As she lies on her deathbed, Jo remembers her own life but – as is the way with dying, drugged brains – her thoughts don’t travel in straight lines. Instead they meander backwards and forwards, delivering vignettes of an untidy but engaging journey through the latter half of the 20th century – a century in which two world wars cast long shadows over not only those who lived through them but also their children, who grew up listening to their parents’ stories of a world at war; absorbing those stories into their own mental luggage, but seeing them with the eyes of a new generation:
… the elusive theme that I’m seeking connects most definitely to the way the lives of my generation, whatever part of it we come from, were led within the shadows of wars: the kind the twentieth century invented and which weighed on our parents both metaphorically and actually in ways which could not but affect us, their children, far more than we knew. I think I might even dare suggest that there might still be something interesting – and still relevant – to be said about the anachronistic English upper middle class among which I grew up. For our parents and grandparents started and entered the wars, after all, with a naive yet admirable decency that did not allow them to make much sense of the often vile mayhem that surrounded them, approaching it in the most simplistic and inadequate of terms: good and evil, honour and duty.
The determined and strong-willed woman whose story emerges from Jo’s wandering thoughts could, in the hands of a less accomplished writer, have come across as unsympathetic and self-obsessed. That she doesn’t is a testament to Penelope Farmer’s ability to create fully-rounded and imperfect human beings with whom it is all too easy to identify. Neither saint nor monster, Jo is the product of her upbringing – a part of all that she has seen. When I say that Goodnight Ophelia is a beautifully written novel, I don’t mean that the language is lyrical and poetic. Indeed, much of it is earthy and basic, rooted firmly in its native Anglo-Saxon soil. But it has a vivacity and immediacy that draws you in and carries you along. Jo learns the hard way that there is much truth in the old adage, ‘Be careful what you wish for’, but as the darkness closes around her, she – and we – cannot truly regret that, in the end, she found what she was looking for.
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. 2015. ISBN-13: 978-1496111968. 264pp. Also available as an ebook, published by C&W.
Be sure to join us on Friday, when Penelope Farmer will be talking at length about her career, ‘Goodnight Ophelia’ and the publishing industry.