Crusoe's Daughter, by Jane Gardam

Gardam has been one of my favorite authors since I was introduced to her via “Old Filth”: , recommended by the ever-reliable folks at my local indie bookstore, The Ivy. Her stories remind me a bit of Barbara Pym's because they are about the charming and extraordinary lives of ordinary people. In the memoir workshops I lead, I always say that everyone has a story to share. The most humdrum life has trials and triumphs and moments of grace. Often, reading obituaries of people I never met, I think Wow! I wish I'd known that person.

Even more than Pym, though, Gardam's work reminds me of Ann Tyler's. Tyler is famous for her eccentric characters, portrayed with understanding and compassion. Having grown up in the neighborhood where Tyler often places her characters, I can attest to their accuracy. So perhaps we are all eccentrics and oddballs; some people just hide it better.

In this story, six-year-old Polly Flint is left by her father at a remote yellow house near the Irish sea. After he hands her over to her two aunts, her late mother's sisters, he takes himself off to his ship. Two months later he went down with his ship.

I expected a Jane Eyre sort of story, but Gardam is never predictable. Polly's aunts, pious spinsters, assume from the first that she will be with them always, not as a duty to be undertaken, but as a member of the family. “Never in all the years did they suggest that they had been good to me or that there was the least need for my gratitude, or that I had in any way disturbed their lives.”

For Polly, who has lived in foster homes since her mother's death when Polly was one, she might as well be stranded on a desert island, so isolated from the world does she feel, growing up in the old wooden house. When she stumbles upon Robinson Crusoe in the library, she recognises her soul-mate and life's guide.

And what a life it is! At every turn, when I think I know what is coming next, Gardam outwits me, spinning her tale in another direction. We follow Polly as she grows up, as the twentieth century's wars and evolutions change her enclosed world.

I loved the characters, so unusual and yet so real I felt I must know them. I loved the descriptions: “It was the light at first that was troublesome—the light and the space of the yellow hose. Light flowed in from all sides and down from the enormous sky . . . Here the wind knocked the clouds about over the hills and the marsh and the dunes and the sea, until the house seemed to toss like a ship. I remember that I clutched on to things a good deal.”

Gardam deals efficiently with the challenge of adjusting Polly's first-person voice as she ages. Polly's relationship to the book changes too as she grows, but she never ceases to turn to it for guidance. She never ceases to admire Crusoe as a man and what he accomplished. Some members of my book club felt the references to Crusoe were overdone, but I thought they came at just the right intervals.

This is a lovely read, funny at times and sad at others. I was enchanted by the people Polly meets and what she makes of them. Her life, however ordinary-seeming, is rocked by strong tides and shaken by a family's small rivalries and secrets. I highly recommend it. If you've read any of Gardam's books, what did you think of them?

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