In spite of her pedigree as a novelist (14 novels published since her first back in 1964, shortlisted for Man Booker, Orange and Whitbread prizes), I’m not familiar with her name or work. This is further compounded by the fact that this particular book sat on my bookshelf, unread, for some 20 years. Yet The Orchard on Fire, shortlisted for the 1996 Booker Prize, is regarded as one of the best novels of the 1990s.
It’s an engaging read, although to be honest it does not start particularly well. Floral is the word (as opposed to florid) – flower references initially abound, and not just in the description of April’s garden (“…a brief froth of happiness, bursting in bubbles, evanescent as elderflowers…” to describe an, admittedly unwanted, cold beer did not bode well.)
But lonely, ageing schoolteacher April is heading for the village of Stonebridge in Kent and memories of her childhood and Britain in the late 1950s. And it’s here The Orchard on Fire takes off and starts earning those celebratory plaudits.
Having moved from a series of temporary residences as licensees of various London pubs to run the abandoned The Copper Kettle Tea Rooms, Betty and Percy Harlency settle into rural village life with their daughter April. But The Orchard on Fire is April’s story, not that of her reasonable, likeable parents.
She quickly befriends Ruby Richards, the red-headed firebrand of the village. Together but separately they deal in their own ways with the prejudices and vagaries of the adult world, navigating through childhood innocence and the lecherous advances of the elderly Mr Greenidge towards April.
It’s a short-lived friendship. In spite of creating an idyllic secret hideaway of shared dreams (and shared cigarettes) in an abandoned train carriage, the outside world is never far away. Physically abused by her father once too often, Ruby’s covered injuries become public knowledge and the Richards are shamed into a midnight flit. April never sees her friend again. Not long after, April returns to London with her parents, the lack of success at the tearooms having bankrupted the family. The connection with Stonebridge and Ruby is, for April, permanently broken.
Evocative, The Orchard on Fire beautifully captures a child’s view of the world and its depiction of ordinary daily life mixed with fears, terrors and misapprehensions. But there is also a generous underlying of humour that results in an avoidance of a relentlessly sad depiction of 1950s childhood. Ruby in particular is full of vim in spite of her home life and then there are the local ‘bohemian’ women, the fabulously arty Dittany and Bobs…
The 1996 shortlist for the Man Booker Prize was something of an ‘A list’, compromising of Margaret Atwood, Beryl Bainbridge, Seamus Deane, Shena Mackay, Rohinton Mistry and Graham Swift (the eventual winner for Last Orders).