I was trying to read some book from somewhere, and it just wasn't grabbing me. Can't even remember what it was, but it was tedious. So I put it down and picked up another second-hand Penelope Lively find, Judgement Day. The change was like leaving the listless warm South Carolina ocean of late August and jumping into a bracing New England pond in June. Precise, economical writing, well-defined and sympathetic characters, and immediate psychological suspense. It's just a story of a sophisticated London woman finding engagement in her new home in the seemingly narrow-minded suburbs, trying to help out the local church with its historical pageant. There's an ineffectual parish minister, who is captured at once by Lively's description:
Saturday, December 13
He spent several years as a curate in North London, where he found himself out of his depth, made to feel a lackluster figure both by his more racy colleagues and the parishioners. He was no good at Youth Clubs and disturbed black teenagers. They made rings around him, as did the jaunty young vicar and his jeaned, chain-smoking wife and her brisk, emphatic community-worker friends. When the Laddenham living came up he fled with relief.
The village' folk are drawn sympathetically but with a cool eye. Most of the suspense built up is of a quiet kind: will Clare find a meaningful place in the community? Will the rector break out and do something amazing? What of the quiet, widowed Sydney Porter? Is Clare's marriage truly happy? Nothing is predictable. And neither, says Lively, is modern life, in a village any more than in the city. While the novel lacks the darkness of McEwen's fiction, villate life is not all tea and flowers. Accident intrudes cruelly, and wanton human behavior. In a McEwen novel, Clare's child would not have been spared the accident that happens to another. But it still strikes near her, and she and we are aware that none of us is safe, but that we have to go on and try to live by our lights.