The snarling cries of a wind eating its way

cold comfort farm book cover

Cold Comfort Farm
by Stella Gibbons

I read this novel as the Guardian Reading Group picked it as the book for December and it had already sat for too long on the TBR. It’s one of those books so beloved, and described so often in hyperbolic terms, that I worried I would be disappointed. It turns out, I was not.

I suppose my biggest fear was that I wouldn’t find it funny, that the comedy would have dated. And there are aspects of the book that show their age (some racism/antisemitism and homophobia) but the comedy is still very funny.

The story is that of Flora Poste, who is well brought up, highly educated and suddenly orphaned, therefore in need of somewhere to live. Eschewing all the easy options available from her various friends in London, she writes to all her distant relatives and accepts the offer that sounds the strangest and least appealing – Cold Comfort Farm near Howling in Sussex, with the wonderfully named Aunt Ada Doom and her large family.

Flora is a busybody and immediately decides that these strange parochial relatives, with their gloomy demeanour and dislike of cleaning, need straightening up, so she sets herself the challenge of sorting them all out. And it’s a big challenge. From the lustful young man Seth, who gets the serving girl pregnant every spring, to doddering old farmhand Adam, who fails to notice when hoofs and horns fall off his beloved cows, to raving old Ada Doom herself, who never leaves her room yet wields a strange power over the farm, which may or may not be related to that fateful night when she saw something nasty in the woodshed.

“Aunt Ada Doom sat in her room upstairs…alone. There was something almost symbolic in her solitude. She was the core, the matrix; the focusing-point of the house—and she was, like all cores, utterly alone. You never heard of two cores to a thing, did you? Well, then”

Oh, and I should also mention that this is set in a near future (or what was near future at the time it was written), so it has a touch of SF mixed in there. It’s quite subtle but there are small details, especially toward the end – video phones, airmail literally dropped at the front door, personal planes to the nearest field – which add an extra level of strangeness. I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the future setting was – perhaps to make the strong female lead and satire excusable in some way?

“‘She – she’s mad.’
The word lay between them in the indifferent air. Time, which had been behaving normally lately, suddenly began to spin upon a bright point in endless space.”

If there’s one thing this book has in spades, it’s satire. Right from the author’s foreword when Gibbons tells her friend Tony that she has “marked what I consider the finer passages with one, two or three stars”, which “ought to help the reviewers” and indeed there are passages so marked throughout the book, all particularly overblown examples of satirising the prose of “country” novels such as those by George Eliot.

“**Dawn crept over the Downs like a sinister white animal, followed by the snarling cries of a wind eating its way between the black boughs of the thorns. The wind was the furious voice that was baring the dormers and mullions and scullions of Cold Comfort Farm.”

One of the questions raised on the Guardian Reading Group was whether or not we are supposed to admire Flora. She is an interfering city girl who decides that these country folk aren’t up to scratch and sets out to change them into a more acceptable “normality”. Or is that also part of the satire? She is after all in love with her cousin back in London, who happens to be a vicar, so her own story is pretty much a satire of a Jane Austen plot.

“The brittle air, on which the fans of the trees were etched like ageing skeletons, seemed thronged by the bright, invisible ghosts of a million dead summers. The cold beat in glassy waves against the eyelids of anybody who happened to be out in it.”

I like that the satire is of literary styles, rather than any people or ways of life (or at least that’s how I read it). And I must say I found Flora adorable, which is surprising because it’s in a way irritating that she is so capable and right about everything, but then that also makes her a brilliant strong female character. And she wasn’t the only surprise for me. Most of the characters begin as almost surreal fairytale types but become human as you get to know them (or should that be as Flora works her magic?).

I really enjoyed this book and can definitely see myself returning to it. The question now is do I seek out the sequels that Gibbons wrote, which are by most accounts good but not as good, or leave it at this, the pinnacle of her ability?

First published 1938 by Penguin Books.

Source: I bought it secondhand, probably from a charity shop.

All just programming

Old Paint
by Megan Lindholm

This is a novelette from Asimov’s Science Fiction that Tim encouraged me to read. It’s a touching, simple story set in a near-ish future and playing on American tropes.

I hadn’t realised until looking her up for this review that Megan Lindholm also writes as Robin Hobb, which is a name that is much more familiar to me but also one I wouldn’t pick up because she writes that traditional swords and magic fantasy that I’m not a fan of. Well, turns out she can write SF pretty well so maybe I’ll look up more of her work written under her real name.

This is the story of a poor-ish family in an American city in the late 21st century. Suzanne and her two school-age kids share a small flat with one computer between them and have no car, much to the children’s shame. But when they inherit their grandfather’s huge muscle car they are even more embarrassed. Especially when their mother insists on actually driving it rather than letting it drive itself like everyone else does.

To say much more about the storyline would be to give too much away, but it’s an interesting take on the American love affair with cars. From an environmental perspective it’s hopeful, because all cars run on electricity, with back-up solar cells for when they can’t get to a charge point. Despite the advances in technology, this is a story about people. Suzanne reminisces about her teenage relationship with this same car. And yes, I know how that sounds and yes, to a certain extent the story does anthropomorphise the car (“Old Paint” is the name they give it), though it does acknowledge this directly:

“We all know that Old Paint is just following the directives of his programming. He’s not really…alive. He just seems that way because we think of him that way. But it’s all just programming.”

But that’s not what it’s about. Suzanne’s long-since given-up-on relationship with her father is rescued after the fact by this gift and her children learn to appreciate her through it as well. Which sounds odd, but trust me, it works.

There are more SF elements than my synopsis perhaps suggests but they are subtly done so that, aside from one thing that’s central to the story, it’s all background. It’s a very believable near future, with only one significant change from now.

First published in the July 2012 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction.

Secrets and gangs

20 Years Later
by E J Newman

The synopsis of this book greatly appealed to me – a story for young adults about people trying to survive in London 20 years after a mysterious event has destroyed humanity as we know it – so I jumped at the chance to get an advance copy. I may also have been attracted by the fact that one of the rival gangs in the story is called the Gardners. Sadly they turned out to be nasty nasty people. Darn.

Newman does a good job of eking out the details, both of what happened in the past and of what is happening now. The central characters are all 15 years old (or thereabouts, they don’t really know; they don’t bother with such things in this version of the year 2032) and therefore never knew the world before “It” happened, though there are older people around who occasionally drop a fact or two.

The story starts with Zane, a boy living with his mother Miri in an uneasy truce with two of the neighbouring gangs – the Bloomsbury Boys and the Red Lady’s Gang. They are unusual for not being part of a gang themselves and are often caught in the middle of vicious animosities. Zane’s longing to belong makes gang membership seem attractive but he is aware that he is not like other boys – he has an instinctual hatred for violence.

When Titus and his sister Lyssa stray unknowingly into Bloomsbury Boys territory a chain of events begins that leads Zane to the truth behind everything – including the fact that he is different from other people in more than just his attitude to violence.

I am reluctant to reveal much more than that, though the publisher’s blurb on the back cover gives away almost everything. I hate that. But it didn’t stop me enjoying the story. Actually, I raced through it, eager to know what happened next. A lot is packed into just over 300 pages and there are sequels in the works, so there were questions left unanswered and story threads left hanging.

One thing that stood out was that these 15 year olds are very different from the teenagers I have ever known, but this is a clear authorial decision. These characters are fighting for their lives, literally. They have no formal education, no early years of being carefree children; their intellect is dedicated to self-preservation, mastering weapons and early-warning systems. Most of the boys have never met a girl (aside from Miri) and so have never faced that side of being a teenager. Which makes them oddly childish; in fact one adult character in the book remarks on how young Zane is, compared with when he was a teenager, back before It happened. It makes the characters an odd combination of capable and self-reliant beyond almost anyone I know, and shockingly but sweetly naïve.

If you’re thinking that the author’s name seems familiar, why yes this is the same “E Newman” of the Split Worlds project. You see, a couple of months ago, I saw a Tweet from a local author about something called BristolCon, which sounded fun (and indeed was) and also that she would have copies of her new book there for reviewers. So I went along and I picked up a copy and then it was NaNoWriMo so I didn’t do a whole lot of reading for a month but I did interact with @EmApocalyptic and read a bunch of her short stories (and indeed featured one on this website). I am glad that I finally had time for her novel and look forward to the sequels.

Published 2011 by Dystopia Press.