Book Review: Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves…

About the Book:

A novel with a crime at its heart, based on the extraordinary life of the author’s own grandmother.

During the Second World War, Rene Hargreaves leaves her children with her aunt and boards a train without buying a return ticket, so sure is she that she never wants to see her husband again. Instead she starts a new life as a Land Girl on Starlight Farm. She finds its owner Elsie Boston and her country ways strange at first, yet as their relationship develops they become inextricably dependent on each other, long after the war has ended. When their shared life is suddenly threatened by a visitor who comes to stay, and something that happens not long after, they must begin to fight a war of their own against not just their community, but the nation’s press, and the full force of the law.

 

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My Thoughts:

I first came across this novel, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves when it featured as part of a blog tour earlier this year on a blog I like to follow, What Cathy Read Next. Cathy combined an author interview with her review of the novel and it sounded like the sort of historical read I usually enjoy. The novel has since been longlisted for The Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, “a prize that celebrates quality, and innovation of writing in the English language, and is open to books published in the previous year in the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth.”

 

I’m always drawn to historical fiction that is inspired by fact, be it events or real people, and Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves falls into that category. I’ll begin at the end with this extract from the author’s historical note:

“This novel began while I was trying to find out about the life of my mother’s mother, Rene Hargreaves—a black sheep if ever there was one.

Like most ordinary people, Rene’s life would have been nearly invisible in the official sense—but for her encounters with the criminal justice system and the rigours of wartime documentation. What I found suggested a partial chronology for Rene and, to a lesser extent, Elsie; the police records also revealed some tantalising details about their life together.

It should be clear that Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a fiction and not a speculation and it should be read as such.”

 

I thought it was interesting to note how the author referred to Rene Hargreaves as “her mother’s mother” as opposed to her grandmother, a telling turn of phrase to indicate that Rene Hargreaves wasn’t a grandmother in any way. And indeed, she did abandon her children when they were at very young ages and never saw them again. Contrary to the book description here, Rene left her youngest child, a baby, with a woman who had been her brother’s nanny, and the older two children were put onto a train and sent to her sister-in-law, a woman she didn’t even like and who had nothing but contempt for Rene. We are given the background on why Rene felt she needed to leave her husband, but leaving your husband and giving your children away are two entirely different things, and I will admit that this clouded my liking of Rene. I was mollified to some degree to note that within the story, this weighed heavily on Rene for the rest of her life, but even she acknowledges that she didn’t need to abandon them to have left her husband. She could have gotten them back, particularly given the fact that her husband had died and would not have challenged her for custody. So I can clearly understand why the author would have referred to Rene in that manner, for not only was she not a mother to her own daughter, she certainly was never a grandmother to her grandchildren.

 

The final statement in this historical note is also of interest to me, that reinforcement that Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a fiction, not a speculation. To me, this just goes to show how little was known about these women, other than the information that entered the public domain. They really did live a rather secluded life, which in itself is not a big deal, the majority of us don’t have pages of info coming up on us with an internet search, but more than this is the implication that their families did not know very much about them. It’s that kind of seclusion that begs interest. I can see how this would have inspired a bit of digging, if I had a phantom grandmother, I might have done the same.

 

The novel itself is what I like to term, a quiet unfolding. It’s more of a character study than a plot driven tale. It plods along to a certain extent, but I must admit this appealed to me. I could pick it up and just sink into the day to day lives of these two women, a gentle ebb and flow of history unfolding before me. And it’s very atmospheric, quite rich in the detail of the land and life, during and after WWII. When the novel opens, we meet Elsie (Miss Boston), owner of Starlight Farm, quite nervous about the imminent arrival of her assigned land girl, Rene (Miss Hargreaves). It doesn’t take long for these women to fall into a rhythm with each other. I was particularly saddened by the circumstances that led to Elsie’s loss of her own farm. That kind of underhanded taking advantage of women really angers me, all the more because it would have happened just that way. Two women, working hard and making a go of the farm, having it stolen out from under them by a lazy, sneaking man, who wasn’t even doing his own bit for the war anyway. I was quite incensed. This set them on a wandering path and it was some years until they finally settled into a place of their own again, this time in Cornwall.

 

The majority of the novel is concerned with the life that the ladies were living. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s a character study, of both as individuals but also of them as a unit. What were they to each other? Friends? Lovers? It not explicit. There is certainly plenty of innuendo along the way, particularly at the end when Rene is under examination for breaking the law. What I enjoyed about this novel was its lack of explicit definition. Elsie and Rene were important to each other. They loved each, leaned on each other, and lived their lives linked as any ordinary couple would. They didn’t however define themselves, nor did they constantly explain their relationship to others. It simply was. I pondered quite often on this, and I think it’s very much indicative of the era, as much as the ladies themselves. When something is rare, or to a certain extent unknown, experiencing it yourself doesn’t automatically make it something you can define, or even something that you would want to. I feel that for Elsie and Rene, their relationship was constantly evolving for themselves, what other people thought was incidental, and if at any point in time, one of them had been asked if they were lesbians, I’m quite certain the suggestion would have been met with astonishment. It was a love borne out of companionship rather than sexual desire, that was very much apparent, and for this, I found it all the more authentic and meaningful.

 

The unwanted visitor that comes to stay was an interesting character. I couldn’t quite put my finger on his behaviour. I kept thinking there was some element of dementia, certainly substance abuse, but there were other oddities that threw me. He would have tested a saint, honestly. Some of his behaviour was so bizarre it bordered on disturbing. I really began to fear for Elsie and his strange fixation on winding her up. I liked how this all played out in the end, and I felt once again, that ring of authenticity that made it all seem that much more plausible.

 

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is quite possibly not a novel that all will enjoy. Many might find its gentle pace under stimulating, the focus on characters rather than plot too wandering. To me, it’s an excellent example of historical fiction. A clear snapshot of life in rural Britain, during and post WWII. It perfectly encapsulated the rural mindset, the mistrust of women who have no men in their lives. Dangerous beings, women who opt to think and work for themselves. Clearly not to be trusted and definitely up to something. The subtle way Rachel Malik threads this throughout the narrative is testimony to her skill within this genre. I have no idea if Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves will make the shortlist for The Walter Scott, but its placement on the longlist is well deserved. Possibly not a good book club recommendation, I did put this forward to my own book club and reactions have been mixed. But if you like literary historical fiction, then this is a novel you may well appreciate.

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