Had this book of short stories been written by a French woman it would probably have been called something like ‘The Limits of Intimacy’. However, irony, rather than abstraction, being the English mode, the title refers to a not altogether care-free childhood as described by the narrator (sometimes narrators) in most of these stories.
They bring news from the borderlines of intimacy between siblings, between parents and children, between husband and wife. It is a place where words are spoken and misunderstood or left unspoken, where words seem more often inadequate or inexpressible than a help to communication. Silences and bent silences occur: a daughter sees her mother naked for the first time and “a gulf seemed to have closed”, but opens again once the clothes are on, “the TV covering up our silences”. A delinquent foster child with a fetish for cars is discovered in the 16 year old narrator’s bedroom, his face perfectly made up. He kisses her – “it was like vanilla” – and puts his hand beneath her bra. He stops suddenly and she is left breathless: “I didn’t say anything, not words, but I wasn’t silent any more”.
Almost all the stories are set in Eastbourne, and there is a distinct sense of the sea, of the big blue, that seems to emphasize the loneliness, or at least the solitude, of many of the protagonists. More than once at the end of a story I was put in mind of the final lines of Larkin’s High Windows: And immediately / Rather than words comes the thought of high windows: / The sun-comprehending glass, / And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows / Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless. Godless, we retreat into the privacy of ourselves.
The melancholy is real, and sometimes becomes tragic; what is remarkable is the manner in which the ordinary is invested with significance, and the reminder that behind closed doors, in the interstices of private arrangements, life flares and is doused and perhaps flares again, and that there are stories everywhere. Thoroughly recommended.