Adultery in Islington: Nina Bawden’s The Ice House #Virago

the-ice-houseWhen asked in an interview for The Independent newspaper how she would describe her novel The Ice House was about, Nina Bawden answered:

Asked what The Ice House is ‘about’, I would probably say ‘adultery in Islington’. But that would be to speak dismissively, protectively, as a parent in a superstitious culture might cover a child’s face and call it plain and stupid. In fact, it is a novel about love and friendship; in particular, the friendship between two women who have been close since a dreadful episode in childhood when one of them was viciously beaten by her father.

Friendship is the theme that runs through the four sections of this novel. It begins in around 1951 with two fifteen year old girls Daisy Brown and Ruth Perkins who live in London. Their different backgrounds and characters make them rather unusual friends. Daisy lives within the warm embrace of a loving modestly well-off family who take a relaxed, open attitude to their domestic situation.   Ruth Perkin comes from a wealthy family who live in a turreted house hidden behind large gates complete with a disused ice house in one of the corners of the grounds. She’s a quiet child who says little about her family and her father’s rather strict form of upbringing. She explains this by his years spent as a prisoner of war in Japan. No-one else that Daisy knows has ever been invited to the Perkin’s house before so an unexpected invitation to tea gives her a thrill. it will give her a chance maybe to discover information about Ruth’s family that Ruth has never shared with her friend.

The real explanation for Ruth’s reticence becomes abundantly clear soon after Daisy enters the Perkin household and encounters her father Captain Perkins. Daisy is a bit of a flirt but even she is surprised at the forwardness of the Captain’s comments

“Captain Perkin said, ‘I daresay you have lots of boyfriends, Daisy,’ and she was conscious that her last year’s summer dress was too tight across the chest. … ‘I hope your mother knows what she is doing,’ Captain Perkin said. ‘I am careful with Ruth. But I have seen a bit of the world, you understand. I know what men are, with ripe young girls.’ He spluttered as he laughed, as if his mouth was full of juice. And, with a gloating emphasis, ‘I know what girls are, come to that!’ His eyes were on her breasts.”

The experience of that afternoon, though never spoken about between the two girls, cements their relationship, Thirty years later, they live on the same street in the Islington district of London, they are still friends though married and with families of their own. They live nearby, keep in regular touch. When Luke, Daisy’s husband, is killed in a road accident which may be a suicide, secrets are revealed that shock Ruth. Instead of a the loving marriage she thought her friend had she finds Daisy  launches into a series of diatribes against her husband and reveals she’d been bored with her marriage.

The development comes at a time when Ruth is also experiencing some difficulties with her own marriage. Her husband Joe becomes more distant having taken his friend’s death very hard and Ruth fears what he is keeping hidden from her. Eventually he comes clean and discloses there has been someone else in his life for some time.

The two friends move onto a different phase of their lives in which they contemplate life without a partner or with only a semblance of a relationship. There are plenty of twists and turns along the way over the next few years as the different personalities of the friends shape their responses. And Ruth’s previous experience as a child plays a significant part in her own ability to deal with life.

I wanted to enjoy this rather more than I did. I didn’t warm to either character and found the rather tedious at times. I just wanted the book to be over. It’s the third title I’ve read by Nina Bawden. The first A Little Love, a Little Learning was wonderful, the second The Solitary Child left me cold – you can see my reactions here . My most recent experience hasn’t left me with a feeling Bawden isn’t for me but I need to chose the next one more carefully it seems.

Footnotes

Author: The Ice House by Nina Bawden

Published: 1993 by Virago Modern Classics

Length: 236 pages

My copy: Bought from a charity shop in Oxford. Read as part of AllVirago/All August month in 2016. Also counts towards my Classics Club challenge and the #20booksofsummer challenge for 2016

 

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on August 26, 2016, in Book Reviews, Classics Club, TBR list and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. If this book has a lot of lecherous stuff, I don’t know that it would be for me… I get panicky about such things.

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  2. I enjoyed The Birds on the Trees so much that I went and got a few of her other novels and a biography or an autobiography. I’m glad I don’t have this one as it doesn’t sound too convincing.

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  3. I can get some of Nina Bawden’s books at the library, American editions. But not A Little Love, a Little Learning that you liked.

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  4. I loved A Woman of my Age, and I can recommend The Birds in the Trees, although it presents a terribly outdated view of parenthood and drug taking! I have a funny feeling that the Ice House was turned into a TV drama in the early 1990s?

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  5. Like Cleo, the only adult Bawden I’ve read is Ruffian on the Stair, not an easy read but it earned a place on my shelves which given how overcrowded they are says something for it.

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  6. I did like this book a lot more than you, though I have come to realise not everyone likes her books as much as I do. Like other very prolific writers her books vary a bit in quality. I think Ruffian on the Stairs and Circles of Deceit are among the best of hers that I have read.

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  7. What a pity about this one. I’ve never read Bawden, so it’s difficult for me to offer a view on her books…

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  8. I discovered Nina Bawden when I was studying children’s literature at teachers’ college, and went on to read her adult books when I found them in the bookshop. I read and really liked all of them: Family Money, Circles of Deceit, Tortoise by Candlelight, The Ice House, George Beneath a Paper Moon, Anna Apparent… I binge-read them, I suppose, like Blytonitis. Some of them are still really memorable even though I read them forty years ago.
    But would I think them wonderful now? I don’t know. Sometimes it’s best to leave well-loved book memories in the archive…

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    • I e not read any of those except The Ice House but I have a feeling there are some of her titles which are better than this. Thanks for those pointers. I’m just about to begin a university course in children’s lit but she doesn’t feature ….

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      • I think her stories would probably be a bit dated by now. I think she wrote one called Carrie’s War, but today’s kids are probably not interested in reading about WW2… shame, it was a terrific book about being evacuated and it made me understand more about my father’s experience of being evacuated…

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      • I chronically borrowed and re-borrowed these from the children’s library, but I often returned them unread. I loved their covers, but the stories were a little slow and possibly too sophisticated for my also-raised-on-too-many-Blytons taste. IIRC, The Peppermint Pig was an exception!

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  9. What a shame you didn’t take to this more particularly as I have a copy to read. The only adult book I’ve read is Ruffian on the Stair which had more of an impact after I’d finished than I imagined it would. I was a huge fan of this author’s children’s books so I will probably take a chance and read this one too and see if my feelings match yours.

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    • I see that Ali of HeavenAli rats this more highly than I did so your experience could well differ. I never read any of her children’s books – maybe I was the wrong generation.

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  10. I’ve only read one Bawden book, “A Woman of My Age” and I did end up having mixed feelings about it. Certainly I’ve never felt the need to read another of hers….

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