by Polly Clark
published by: riverrun, an imprint of Quercus editions, March 2017
Polly Clark is a poet and this is evident in her lyrical and haunting first novel, Larchfield, a story of two lonely social outcasts who meet across time finding friendship and strength.
The novel alternates between Dora and Wystan’s stories. In the present day, Dora has recently moved from London to Helensburgh in Scotland with her architect husband. She is a poet, emotionally fragile but sure of her place as a new mother. In the 1930s Wystan (the poet W H Auden) is about to publish his first collection of poetry; but to escape from the humiliation of a rejected proposal of marriage, he takes a job as a teacher at Larchfield, a boys school in Helensburgh. For both characters it is a story of increasing isolation. Wystan battles his own desires and frustrations as a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal; Dora suffers post-natal depression, exacerbated by her upstairs neighbours from hell who see her bohemian lifestyle as a threat to their Christian ‘goodness’. Both take refuge in a world of their own creation, slipping through time by the power of imagination and acute loneliness to become friends.
In the Guardian (Saturday, 25/3/17) Polly Clark describes the shock of childbirth and its aftermath for many women, how motherhood brings a new alternative reality where a woman can become a machine for caring, with a beady focus on detail… a survival tactic employed by the kidnapped, the incarcerated. For me and I’m sure for many mothers this sadly rings true. Some will dismiss it as hype, or couch such a state as the baby blues, but after the birth of one of my own children I still vividly recall a relentless, low-level sense of depression that lasted several months, only lifting when I went away for a family weekend. It wasn’t the acute psychosis that can occur after giving birth, but a kind of greyness; I functioned perfectly well as a mother, but felt distanced from my new baby and found it difficult to enjoy anything.
In a culture where the extended family has all but disappeared, Polly Clark’s fine, thoughtful novel has implications for a more careful monitoring of new mothers to avoid isolation and depression and to work towards allaying the often unspoken and unjustified fear that, by articulating how we feel, we risk losing our baby to social services. One day people with mental health problems will receive the same care as those with physical illnesses, but there’s still a long way to go.
Polly Clark has written a gripping, beautifully observed and ultimately hopeful story:
Dora stepped further into the room. She felt Wystan there. He was present somehow in the warm, kind walls.
Larchfield is a powerful novel about love and friendship that questions the accepted rosy view of new motherhood and stresses the vital importance of art.
Polly Clark was born in Toronto and lives in Helensburgh on Scotland’s west coast, close to where W.H. Auden wrote The Orators. She is Literature Programme Producer for Cove Park, Scotland’s International Artist Residency Centre, and the author of three poetry collections. She won the MsLexia Prize for Larchfield, the Eric Gregory Award, and has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. Her pamphlet A Handbook for the Afterlife was shortlisted in the 2016 Michael Marks Awards and a volume of New and Selected Poems, Afterlife, is due in 2018.