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40 of 40 people found the following review helpful
I may not be the best person to review this delightful 1978 novel by Jane Gardam, author of OLD FILTH and THE MAN IN THE WOODEN HAT, since much of my enjoyment comes from the fact that this is MY world she is describing -- a small seaside resort in Northern Britain, such as the one where I grew up. Although this is moved back half a generation to the mid-thirties when, instead of the dying sputters of postwar austerity, there was ALWAYS a band in the bandstand, ices on the promenade, and pierrots on the pier. And preachers on the beach, with tambourines and trombones, tracts and hymn-singing; that part I most certainly remember, and it is central to this book. For the novel's main character, eight-year-old Margaret Marsh, has a father who is a part-time evangelist -- like my own, actually, but of a stricter persuasion. "He and his wife were members of the Primal Saints and most of their free time was spent in the local Primal Hall down Turner Street -- a very nasty street of plum and sandstone and silence." Yet Margaret loves her father and has acquired a prodigious knowledge of Bible verses, all referred to by name and number, as in: "Her feet were on the earth and her life yielding fruit Genesis one eleven." Or: "She wondered two Corinthians five one whether she had seen a home not made with hands, eternal in the heavens." Alas, I have been there also.

The book begins with a exquisitely described trip on a local train to the nearby resort. Given the Saints' prohibition on entertainment and frivolity of all kinds, the excursion is like an entry into a different world for Margaret. Accompanied by her nurse Lydia -- a decidedly secular and sexual young woman, although nominally also a Saint -- her eyes are opened to more than mere seaside attractions. She stumbles upon a great house converted into a sanatorium for shell-shock victims, and then finds Lydia flirting rather physically with the gardener. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the book is watching the author gradually adjust the language from the child's-eye view to a more adult perspective, as Margaret learns, albeit from a distance, the lineaments of denial and desire, dimly perceives the consequences of divisions in class, and discovers that her idols have feet of clay. The author's focus gradually changes also to the older generations, exploring the frustrations of Margaret's mother, the ripples caused by the return of some old childhood friends, and the machinations of a rich old lady dying in the big house. Readers of Gardam's later books will know the mixture of pathos, humanity, sadness, and occasional bawdy humor that she can create, and will not be surprised when everything connects up in somewhat hopeful fashion at the end -- although I did feel that the postlude here was a little too obviously tacked on. All the same, this is a fascinating piece of time-travel well worth taking, even for those who did not grow up in the atmosphere it describes.

[Although the original edition of this book is out of print, I am reviewing an advance copy of a beautifully-produced Europa Editions paperback, due for release in October 2010. While it is by no means a deep book, it will make a very pleasant read in this edition.]
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 2011
I continually found myself torn between wanting to re-read the last 3-4 pages because they were so deft, so amazing, that I wanted them to happen to me all over again, and meanwhile wanting to keep reading ahead because the plot is so suspenseful, so driven, and so satisfying.

There's a really luminous quality to the prose. Certain sections read like Chekhov at his best.

I have been reading all the Orange Prize winners and finalists, and they are all pretty great. I wonder why American fiction can't be like this? Really well-written and smart and, at the same time, accessible and entertaining. (It seems like our books are either one or the other: suspenseful but in a generic way; or literary in a trying-too-hard way.)

This book has it both ways. It's smart and it's also a good time.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on February 21, 2012
This novel has the feel of other worldliness about it, as if it's happening in a transmuted time and place. Whenever a child sits in the middle of an adult world, that child acts as a doorway into the past and the future, into truth and deception, true love and false accommodation. At the outset of this superbly crafted work, much in the lives of the central characters remains hidden, and Margaret Marsh, the 8-year-old daughter of Elinor and Kenneth Marsh, is the catalyst acting to pull back the curtain and reveal reality. Her dogmatic father has completely saturated Margaret's mind with the Bible, and her mother has accommodated herself to Kenneth even as she has buried her childhood and adolescent feelings of love for her friend Charles. Only when a new housekeeper arrives, Lydia, do Margaret's and her parents' inner worlds gradually awaken.

To give a plot summary here would be to spoil the joy of discovering this intricately woven story of intersecting lives. The many characters are rich and real. And the writing is impressionistic, Joycean, and economical. The choices of details are carefully considered and perfectly rendered. This novel grew on me as I read on, and by the end, I wanted to start it all over again. What a brilliant work! Highly recommended.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon November 23, 2010
Thanks to the overwhelming popularity of Old Filth, Jane Gardham is at last finding her earlier works being reissued and made available. Although written thirty years before Atonement, this book shares similarities in that they both deal with how misinterpretations from the past can affect the present, and regrets for actions taken can leave unhealed wounds. Gardham releases information only as needed with an economy of purpose so there is not an unnecessary word. Her characters are filled with breadth and scope, her situations believable. She is able to short points of view almost unnoticed, giving the story its three dimensional quality. There are also several scenes of high farce, surprising in a story seemingly so serious. Highly recommended.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam has that special dreamy quality that so often hooks me, but that hook didn't sink in quickly. I was two chapters in before I was caught. Then I couldn't get enough of eight year-old protagonist, Margaret, and the tangle of complex relationships that surround her. The book is set in England in the early part of the 20th century, where breast-feeding an infant is a touch Bohemian and removing your stockings in public a precursor to sin, so we're appropriately scandalized when Margaret's eighteen year-old maid, Lydia, ducks behind a tree to remove her corset, but our 21st century perspective applauds her spirit. We know immediately who the heroine in this story is. While Margaret's preacher father, Marsh, seems to care only for scripture ("Mind the Book and not the sunset."), while her mother, Elinor, is absorbed in the simple bodily needs of her new baby, it's Lydia who sets Margaret free to roam in the woods. When the cigarette-smoking Lydia first arrives and immediately sets about making scones, Elinor seems fearful and says, "she must go." But Marsh won't hear of it: "`She has been sent,' said Marsh. `We are to work His will.'" He seems intent on reforming the sinner, but when he suggests he and Lydia take a walk together in the woods, she adamantly refuses. To her mind, there's only one reason a man would want to get her alone in the woods, and her reasoning makes us question Marsh's intentions as well.

Seen through the eyes of a perceptive, precocious child, all the adults seem absurd. Margaret's POV is the simple voice of reason, and Lydia is her only ally in natural living. The rest have all been led astray by odd obsessions--love, power, self-sacrifice, a particular way of worshipping god. It's because they miss the common simplicity of life that they are constantly engaged in conflicts with one another, conflicts that are by turns funny, poignant, and heartbreaking. This is a domestic drama that delivers up as much tension as a murder mystery--what will happen when Marsh cracks, as Lydia knows is inevitable? What will happen when Elinor stops breastfeeding?

We learn that one who goes away and returns is changed, their perspective permanently altered. Just as the Frayling siblings are changed by Cambridge, their mother's nurse, Booth, waxes over her time spent in China, saying, "Never the same again. You're never the same again." Margaret asks, "Do you have to leave a place to be clever?" It's the shifting perspectives in this book that make it interesting, the going away and returning, to another place or another time.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
How exactly should a reviewer rate a book which is quite well written but which she nonetheless didn't like? Ms. Gardam's prose is both tight and subtle, gradually revealing everything we need to know in understated, often easy to overlook hints and details. Her plotting and characterization are complete and well integrated. In a minimum of words Ms. Gardam conveys her character's actions and words while gradually revealing the history and motivations that underlie such behavior. Her characters are fully understandable, but, as such, they are also thoroughly detestable. There was not one character, not even the precocious main character, eight-year-old Margaret, whom I connected with enough to care about.

The story revolves around the neglected, smart-mouthed Margaret and her dysfunctional family. Her father's sole concern is his strict, Bible-based religion, the Primal Saints. Margaret is expected to - and does - memorize vast numbers of Bible verses. Such verses become a means of communication - and battle of wits - between Margaret and her father. For instance, Margaret wants to see the pierrots on an outing to the seaside and her father brings up Moses' views about dancing in Exodus. The conversation continues with Margaret responding:

"I hate Moses. What about David?"
"How dare you, Margaret!"
"Psalms 150 verses three to six. And what about two Samuel six fourteen?"
"That will do."

Margaret's mother, meanwhile, is a hopeless, doddering, nostalgic fool for whom Margaret has contempt. Elinor is caught up in caring for the new baby and following her husband's religion, but she herself seems to have no personality. We sense perhaps there is (or was) something to her buried under all that silliness, but even as we learn more about the real Elinor, she remains as doughy and insubstantial as ever.

Although Margaret sees and understands (and despises) her parents perfectly well, they do not see her. Since the baby came, she has been often left in the care of Lydia, the brash, loose, profane maid whom Mr. Marsh feels has been sent to him to be saved. On Wednesdays Margaret is allowed to take excursions to the seaside with Lydia, only to be left to her own devices while Lydia attends to her personal affairs. Prowling around on private property, Margaret gets her initial exposure to the peculiar Frayling family, along with some of the patients who inhabit the estate which has been turned into a sanatorium for World War I soldiers suffering shell shock and other mental conditions (some of which patients seem to be the most sane characters in the book).

From this initial encounter, Margaret begins to learn of the role the (now adult) Frayling children, the sexless Charles and the bold and bossy Binkie, along with their mother, the now-decrepit Rosalie, played in her mother's life. Issues of class differences, femininity vs. masculinity and love and loss pervade the story and echo through the generations. As with her mother, Margaret can see easily through the Fraylings and her sharp tongue shreds the illusions of the pretentious clan.

Ms. Gardam is a master of dynamics between and among each subgroup of characters, the relationships among the characters swirl out of control in predictable, yet still revelatory ways, leaving Margaret herself in the middle of the storm.

As I've mentioned, the story is very tight. All the characters and all the events in the plot have a purpose and they intertwine and intersect masterfully. But this means that you need to pay constant attention because small details and minor characters have a big impact further down the line. For instance, I initially overlooked Beezer-Iremonger as a minor, unimportant character and then later couldn't get my head around who he was or what his role in the story was. It was only when I went back and re-read a good portion that I fully understood his importance.

The book is masterfully written and my hat is off to Ms. Gardam, but I nevertheless ended the book feeling an ill-defined sense of disgust, agitation, even dirtiness. Hannah Arendt, in her studies on Adolf Eichmann, explored the concept of the "banality of evil", but this book seems to push that concept even further. None of the characters in the book are, of course, war criminals or murderers, but the book reveals how evil can manifest in small, subtle everyday actions and interactions and how seemingly minor, banal events can fester insidiously and infect everything and everyone around for generations to come. None of the characters (with the possible exception of the "crazy" Drinkwater) is immune from the effects. Margaret and her sharp tongue provide a sort of antidote to the vanity and illusions resulting from such evil, but she too is tainted. This is not a happily-ever-after story. In fact, you may be left feeling the need for a bath.

According to Amazon's guidelines, two stars means "I didn't like it", which I didn't. But such a rating would be grossly unfair to Ms. Gardam's masterful writing, which deserves five stars. But I didn't love the book, so that rating too would be inappropriate, so I settled on the admittedly bland and wimpy compromise of four stars. I highly recommend the book if you have the time to give it the attention it deserves and if you're prepared to face the uncomfortable realities of the evils of everyday love and family life.
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7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Set in England in the era between the two world wars, God on the Rocks, with its sly, multi-layered title, is one of Jane Gardam's earliest novels, a delightful but carefully considered look at society, religion, personal responsibility, and acts of fate in the lives of several families. Eight-year-old Margaret Marsh, the primary speaker, is energetic and thoughtful, living comfortably with her very religious bank manager-father and her subservient and seemingly passive mother. The family has recently been joined, however, by Lydia, a "fallen woman" whom her father Kenneth believes he is called upon to "save."

An especially precocious child, Margaret is having a hard time at home, these days, unable to understand the God who has sent her a baby brother who bores her (she wishes she could call him "Scummy," instead of Terrence), and as she and her mother argue about why Margaret needs to love the baby, Margaret reveals an unusually sophisticated ability to think on two levels--that of her real life, which is infinitely more exciting now that Lydia has arrived, and that of the spiritual life which her parents are encouraging in her. As Margaret questions the act of creation on all levels, along with what love really is, she is confused. "If I'd been God, I'd have left it at dinosaurs," she remarks. "And if God looks like us...What's the point?"

Through flashbacks, Margaret's early rebellions appear, and as she happily meets "damaged" people at the beach, like Drinkwater, an artist who may be living at the rest home nearby (primarily for the shell shocked), her view of the world also grows. Her mother's childhood and the circumstances under which she married Kenneth Marsh, the points of view of several other characters and their courtships and marriages, and the tendency of all people to try to control the vulnerable, who have less power than they do, become subjects of exploration as the novel continues.

Without ever losing her sense of humor, often very dark, Gardam explores the contrasts between "good" and "evil." Her ability to describe in the most minute (and perfect) terms the people and places of her novel, and to see the world at large with humor, even as some of her characters cannot avoid seeing the world "writ small," cannot help but remind older readers (especially) of the enormous contrasts between novels written in precise and carefully considered language in a previous generation, which were the primary venue for new thematic insights, and the present world in which the primary venue is the internet, where the sound bite and the bumper sticker phrase reign. When a "dark and stormy night" brings the climax, and each of the characters must face a crisis of life-changing dimensions, the author's sense of irony and dark, mordant humor reach their peak, and reality vs. fantasy, sanity vs. insanity, and religious destiny vs. fate combine with the characters' identities as we have known them to create a memorable and unforgettable battle among the protagonists and the points of view they represent. Mary Whipple

Old Filth
The Man in the Wooden Hat
The Queen of the Tambourine
The People on Privilege Hill
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on June 1, 2015
Like Jane Gardam’s earlier novel “A Long Way from Verona”, “God on the Rocks” deals with a young girl growing up in a small Yorkshire seaside resort. Gardam herself was born in 1929 and grew up in such a resort, so there may be an autobiographical element to the two books. “A Long Way from Verona” was set in the wartime 1940s, this book a few years earlier in the pre-war 1930s.

Like Jessica Vye, the heroine of “A Long Way from Verona”, the main character here, the eight-year-old Margaret Marsh, is growing up in a deeply religious household, but the type of religion involved is very different. Jessica’s father is a relatively liberal Anglican clergyman; Margaret’s father Kenneth is a leading member of and a preacher in a small, exclusivist sect known as the Primal Saints. Apart from their conviction that they alone possess the key to salvation and that the rest of mankind is doomed to hellfire, the main distinguishing feature of the Saints is their extreme, joyless Puritanism. Their austere doctrines forbid not only alcohol and tobacco but also pictures, music and any form of entertainment, which are condemned as worldly vanities. The only permitted reading material is the Bible, which even at her tender age Margaret knows virtually off by heart.

The book revolves around two families, the Marshes and the Fraylings. The Marsh household consists of Margaret, her parents, her baby brother Terence and their maid Lydia. Although Lydia is officially a Primal Saint, there is little that is Puritanical about her. She is a lusty young woman with a much greater appetite for earthly pleasures than her religion officially permits. Kenneth always claims that he has employed Lydia to convert her to the paths of righteousness and bring her to the Lord, but there is always a suggestion that he may be less sincere than he appears and that he is as interested in Lydia’s body as in her soul.

The Fraylings, Charles and Binkie (presumably a nickname), are friends of Margaret’s mother. They are brother and sister, the children of a once-wealthy family who have declined, if not into poverty, at least into middle-class suburban domesticity. We learn that their eccentric mother, motivated by spite- she disliked her children’s socialist opinions- gave away their luxurious family home to be used as a lunatic asylum and that, by an ironic twist of fate, she, suffering from dementia, is now confined in the madhouse which was once her home.

The novel exhibits a number of Gardam’s strengths as a writer. There is a strong sense of place about her writing, shown in her ability to conjure up what might be called British Seaside Culture at its height before it was changed for ever by the advent of cheap package tourism in the sixties and seventies. (The book was published in 1978, just as this change was taking effect). It was a world of donkey rides, of sticks of rock, of end-of-the pier shows, of cheap boarding houses and even of preachers on the sands. (Kenneth finds the local beach a suitable platform for his oratory). Combined with this sense of place is an eye for detail; Gardam has a particularly keen eye for the nuances of the British class system.

Gardam’s other strength is for characterisation. This is particularly noteworthy in those scenes showing us the world through Margaret’s youthful eyes. Jessica begins her narrative in “A Long Way from Verona” by informing the reader that she is “not quite normal”. Margaret, younger than the teenage Jessica, is not old enough to realise just how abnormal her upbringing among the Primal Saints has been, but is old enough to try and make some sort of sense of it. She also befriends some of the inmates of the asylum, especially an elderly painter, without realising that they are insane; to her they are no stranger than any other grown-up. Gardam’s ability to see through a child’s eyes reminded me of some other authors writing around the same period, notably H E Bates in “The Distant Horns of Summer” and Alison Lurie in “Only Children”.

Against these strengths, however, must be set the book’s weaknesses which chiefly lie in the fields of structure and plot, which explains why I did not enjoy it as much as “A Long Way from Verona”. The short novel can be a difficult genre. Some examples are little more than overstretched short stories, but “God on the Rocks” exhibits the opposite fault, that of trying to cram too much plot into too little space. It is essentially two novels condensed into one very short one. The story of the Marsh household would probably have been enough to sustain a novel on its own; the history of the dysfunctional Frayling family certainly would have been. 150 pages are not really long enough for Gardam to tell both stories in sufficient detail to satisfy us.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Well . . . eight-year-olds, actually. This is one of these novels in which a child's perspective on the goings-on of grown-ups is used to let us see the irrationality of so-called adult behavior, especially when that behavior is directed to the ends of order and control. Just to make sure we get that point, Gardam locates the main action of the novel (published in 1978) in the 1930's (1936, according to my reading of the internal evidence), and in such a way that the after-effects of World War 1 are still evident. The young protagonist, Margaret Marsh, left alone to wander at a seaside resort a few miles from her home, wanders on to the grounds of a big house, and it isn't very long before the reader figures out (as Margaret doesn't) that it is functioning as a nursing facility for men who have become psychologically disturbed as a result of their war experiences 17 and more years earlier. This forms part of the background against which the irrationality of domestic behavior is played out as the novel progresses.

Margaret's perceptions are fresh and often funny, and when she's puzzled, she asks direct questions that can be embarrassing. Gardam's rendering of the dialogue in which Margaret engages the adults around her, and her registration of the details of her everyday experience in surprising and vivid detail, are perhaps the real strengths of the book. The writing is consistently fresh, and there isn't a page on which you won't find some turn of phrase or descriptive detail that will delight you with its freshness and its rightness. These qualities are put at the service of a fairly standard theme -- the folly of people who believe that the crooked timber of humanity (in Kant's phrase) can be straightened out by them. The novel isn't at all like "Hard Times," but there's something of Gradgrind's predicament in Margaret's father's efforts to keep his daughter, his wife, and finally himself in check. Where he differs from Gradgrind is his deployment of religion to effect these controls -- a bank manager, he seems also to be the founder-leader of a small sect, the Primal Saints, in the seaside town of Westkirk, and Margaret has already memorized chapter and verse of the Bible passages that are supposed to guide her life, except that she really pays no attention to them. Her experience doesn't allow her to do more than verbally parrot them at times when she knows her father expects it.

The serpent in the Marshes' Eden is Lydia, the maid-childminder, who clearly comes from a different socio-economic stratum than the middle-class Marshes. Part of Lydia's job is to look after Margaret as her mother deals with a newborn little brother. She is fleshy and fleshly, and Margaret likes her in part because she allows Margaret a good deal of freedom. Margaret is a bit turned off by the flesh, but for what seem like aesthetic rather than religious reasons. Her mother's post-pregnancy fleshiness (emphasized by her enthusiastic breast-feeding) and the baby brother's obnoxious (to Margaret) physicality are much noted -- and as the book goes on the contrast between the thin and the fleshy plays out in sometimes unexpected ways.

Margaret sees her mother as playing a role -- that there is something overdone about the cheery child-centeredness -- and as the book goes on the authenticity of her mother's apparent happiness is put to the test. Old friends from her childhood return to town -- Charles Frayling and his sister Binkie, both Cambridge-educated ex-socialists -- and the last two-thirds of the novel reveal the connection between the Marshes and the Fraylings, and the connection of both to the big house that now functions as a hospital for disturbed ex-soldiers. We learn that issues of parental control have figured in the past of the Fraylings, as they function somewhat differently in the "present" of the Marshes, and we are made aware that there are natural forces and drives (in the external as well as the internal world) that make the idea of control questionable and that lead, with a curious mixture of humor and pathos, to the controlling characters' acknowledgements (sometimes wry, sometimes painful) of their folly.

Clearly in these comments I have tried not to say too much. The charm of the novel lies in its surprises of language and events. Let me register, though, a couple of reservations about its total success. First, I have trouble finding Margaret altogether credible as an eight-year-old -- she's too alert, too smart, too verbally facile. But we need that voice and point of view for the perspectives to be established, so I just suspend my disbelief there. Second, near the end, Lydia is given a long explanatory powerful speech that isn't inconsistent with her character as we have come to know it, but perhaps isn't quite credible as something she would be able to articulate. Finally, the ending is a bit of a cop-out. The final chapter takes place 12 years after the previous one (No, I'm not giving anything of substance away!) and ties up some loose ends -- while raising some questions that one wishes had been engaged. There is one pleasant (I think) surprise in it, however.

Be warned that there are characters in the book, and many events both funny and painful, that this review has not mentioned in the interests of not spoiling things. The novel was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1978 but lost out to Iris Murdoch's "The Sea, the Sea." Murdoch is a fine and serious writer, quite alive to absurdity, but Gardam has a sharpness of eye, lightness of touch, and verbal felicity (especially in dialogue) that one can't find in Murdoch. Give this one a try.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 23, 2013
I read Old Filth by Ms. Gardam and loved it. I then started reading my way through her entire output (well, not the children's books) and realized that this writer can write a very different book each time out. They do not predict each other. That is fairly amazing all by itself. She always tells a story, but the story is not always straightforward, and God on the Rocks is a good example. The characters within the novels range between recognizable to slightly distorted (in the same way that Goya's figures are slightly elongated or Michelangelo's statues are sumptuous but slightly unreal). This is more true in God on the Rocks than some other Gardam books, but it is so smoothly served that any sense of being odd didn't strike me as I read-- it was only later that I recognized the deliberate and delicate skew.

One of my criteria is that the story be interesting, and I am willing to suspend my disbelief to get there. In this case, the telling of the story is slightly aslant, as the primary narrator is a young girl with an observant eye but limited experience. But the underlying story (or actually perhaps three stories) is solid and reportable. Perhaps even plausible.

Another criteria is that I don't care for books that are wildly unkind or totally unsympathetic to its characters. Gardam creates characters that are amusing (some of them) and clearly a bit of a overstatement (or just plain funny) without being condescending. Other characters are people who have met in life somewhere. And there are some you want to meet and some you don't quite want to meet but do want to know about. Perhaps you are like me -- you see someone on a commuter train or in a store or on the street who appears to have a story and you start to make one up on the spot. Gardam has done that: taken the image of a stranger you have already seen and imagined a whole life for them. This is what the street corner preacher is like. This is what the lonely gentle bachelor is like in his secret and unexpressed rage. This is what the housemaid is really like. This is what a wife is like whose life does not conform to her true nature. The writing is a skill of observation and of the heart. Other characters are clean and beautifully rendered portraits--some quickly but thoroughly sketched and some take some time to get to know. One character is dying -- we learn about her only through others oblique references and through the metaphors that describe her. Irony is more of a feature in God on the Rocks than in some other Gardam novels, but it is layered and interesting--sometimes obvious, sometimes nuanced. This is certainly a very British book, in the very best sense of British understatement and observation.

Gardam is a master of language. Some of the scenes in this book still echo in my memory even though I read this book a year or more ago. It is written so well that I don't simply remember the mental image she created, but the language itself. The words seem perfectly chosen, crafted to appear easily written, but -- if you think about it for a minute -- it seems as though there could not be another word or paragraph that could express the image or the point better than what Gardam has put on paper. She manages this in every novel (some perhaps more successfully than others) and every novel of hers is different than every other novel. Each novel has its own accent, is own idiom, and in the case of God/Rocks, the clarity and care is exquisite.

For my palate, it is such a rich meal that I cannot pick it up and re-read it right away (and I have been known to do that with books I enjoy) in the same way I can't have the full Thanksgiving feast two days in a row. But this book will get read again and later again. I expect to find more and perhaps understand more each time. Gardam deserves a larger audience. Tell your friends.
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