Mari HowardNovember 27, 2018

Girl with Dove: A life built by books

by Sally Bayley

About the author:

Sally Bayley now teaches English at several Oxford colleges ... but she grew up in a dreary, dilapidated house on England's south coast, in a strange dysfunctional family. In this literary memoir, she attributes her  successful escape to the books she read - each of them a 'classic' of  its time and genre ...

About the book:

I've just read this book, an extraordinary and very literary telling of an abusive childhood and the saving power of books. Although I'm not one to talk about things being "Marmite", or to subscribe to "either you’ll love it or you'll hate it", this book is distinctly one which you will either abandon after a few pages or embrace with all your bookish intellect and/or your love of a mystery.

It is neither fact nor fiction, it is neither memoir nor commentary. And yet it is both. Bayley, once a teenager in care, and now a lecturer in Oxford, has woven memories of her childhood in a dreary seaside town and a dreary rundown house and eccentric family into a tapestry inhabited by characters from the books through which she believes she understood the world, or at least attempted to understand it, between the ages of about four and 14.

But there is a lot that we do not understand and that we are not given enough clues about to fully engage with the young Sally's predicament. Instead she has made efforts to write parts of the book in a style imitative of childhood innocence, interspersing this with extracts from the books which most influenced her at that time: Agatha Christie's Miss Marple series, Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, and Dickens's David Copperfield, where she centres on the character of Betsy Trotwood. Stop for a minute and think: which books would an eight-year-old normally have available to read, and possibly make sense of a chaotic family? I wonder why Sally's school wasn't equipped, as  my children’s primary school, with a book corner filled with the paperback works of authors like Roahl Dahl? Did Sally simply reject James and the giant Peach, The Witches, and Matilda as too young and too superficial? Was she unaware of Michael Morpurgo’s books? Has she ever read the Alice stories? There is a mystery. Possibly she doesn't like to mention that she also read such ordinary books? Or were such books not allowed at home? We are told that she had a "very religious upbringing", though the actual facts about this are well hidden in the narrative, rather than describing the cult-like goings-on from adult viewpoint, Bayley has chosen to give us an insight into her child's understanding. Of hearing “gobbledygook” language (praying in tongues). And using an often repeated phrase "black rocks coming out of (her) mouth”, which I have not totally fathomed, but which may indicate ranting in prayer as well as angry words thrown in the direction of the children.

Here we have survivor from a very dysfunctional family, consisting of three women – Bayley's mother (obviously permanently depressed after the death of one of her babies), her aunt Di a powerful angry and unpleasant woman, and her grandmother, plus an assortment of children - both Sally’s brothers and a mysterious collection of others who we are never told much about and who do not have names. Near the end of the book she further describes the house as damp, dark, mouldy, though her mother has brought into it pieces of Wedgwood china, and a pink velvet chaise long. And at the same time, these women, who do no housework apparently nor go out to work, are occasionally insisting on good manners, employ an elocution tutor, and shout at the children to “keep their dirty little hands off" various objects.

It is amazing that this can exist, quietly, in the little seaside town in England through the 1970s and 1980s. Not only hidden poverty but simply hidden misery coupled with eccentricity and no ability to cope. At the same time, for some strange reason high culture was on offer to this child, (as in, Here’s the public library, use it!), who had the chutzpah to understand her situation could be changed by reaching out to the normal world, even though school had apparently not discerned that there were problems at home. She took herself to the only authority she could think of and through approaching the local doctor was able to escape, ironically into children's services and the care system.

I hope there are not too many spoilers here but it is an extraordinary tale, and one that may not appeal to everyone, as the style in which it is told makes a demanding read. I would suggest that if you are interested or intrigued, you might like to follow the links to a couple of articles which you can find here and here  The second is long and appreciative of the complexities of the style and the story telling, the first is a more straightforward review which very much reflects my feelings about this book, which I feel relies on presenting itself as a mystery wrapped in an enigma. As Sally herself says in her acknowledgements, one of her University tutors taught her how to be "an Autolycus" – which may provide the key to what she has written.