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Norfolk - The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley

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The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley
'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there'
When one long, hot summer, young Leo is staying with a school-friend at Brandham Hall, he begins to act as a messenger between Ted, the farmer, and Marian, the beautiful young woman up at the hall. He becomes drawn deeper and deeper into their dangerous game of deceit and desire, until his role brings him to a shocking and premature revelation. The haunting story of a young boy's awakening into the secrets of the adult world, The Go-Between is also an unforgettable evocation of the boundaries of Edwardian society.
Other Norfolk books:
Love on a Branch Line by John Hadfield
Restoration by Rose Tremain
Devices and Desires by P. D. James

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The Go-Between by LP Hartley ***
(Mini-review copied from my blog thread)

I last encountered The Go-Between as a set text at O-level back in the mists of time. I have to admit that I wasn't a particular fan then, and whilst my revisiting the books I studied at school has almost always found me extracting much greater pleasure than when I actually studied them, this particular reread left me comparatively unmoved. There was no doubting the quality of the writing, but some way before the well flagged denouement, I was willing the author to get a move on. The edition I used (Penguin Modern Classics) was also well endowed with footnotes. Normally, I really enjoy the insights these provide, but on this occasion I found much of the symbolism and textual cross-referencing tedious and even pretentious, so fairly soon stopped taking notice of them, enjoying the book rather more as a result. Overall, I still enjoyed this more than first time round, but can't say that it goes down as a classic read. I do seem to have a bit of a problem with 1950s/60s British literature!

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Now in his sixties, Leo Colston comes across an old diary from the year 1900 in a box of personal belongings that has been unopened for years. Leo opens the diary and begins to read, and as he does so, he starts to recall long-forgotten events from that long, hot summer. Events which he has repressed for over fifty years…

The young Leo finds himself isolated at the boarding school he attends after two boys mercilessly tease him over the use of the word 'vanquished' in his diary and his peers either join in or take a step away from him, preferring not to be tainted by associating with him. Impulsively, Leo writes a curse in his diary, made up partly of algebra symbols and partly Sanskrit and when something happens to the boys he finds himself an unlikely hero!

Later that summer, Leo is invited to spend the latter half of July at Brandham Hall in Norfolk – the residence of a school friend called Marcus. Leo's widowed mother, whilst reluctant to let him go, especially as Leo will turn 13 whilst he is there, knows that the experience will be good for him, and so he travels from his home in Wiltshire to Norfolk.

He settles in quickly and soon becomes a go-between, delivering messages between Marcus's sister Marion and the man her parents want her to marry, Lord Hugh Trimingham, a former soldier, disfigured in the Boer War. He also conveys correspondence between Marion and a local farmer called Ted.

At first Leo, who has a big crush on Marion, is happy to make these deliveries, which help to relieve his boredom when Marcus is laid up with an illness. However, when he notices one of the letters between Marion and Ted, explained away as business correspondence, is unsealed, and sees the words "darling, darling, darling. Same place, same time, this evening. But take care not to…" he becomes less willing, although he still continues to take the messages to and fro, not really understanding what is going on. As the temperature rises, matters come to a head in a way that Leo could not have dreamt of, and turning to the magic he believes solved the problem at school, he plans another spell, but events take a tragic turn and his world comes crashing down as he suffers a sense of betrayal that will stay with him and affect his future life.

Apart from the famous opening line – "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there" I knew nothing about this novel. Some of the action takes place in the county town, Norwich, and there are plenty of references to Leo's Norfolk jacket (I had to Google it to see what they are – if like me you are not in the know they are similar to the jackets worn by the police!) but apart from that it could have been set in any county.

I had bought the paperback, but the print is so tiny in it that I downloaded the Kindle version. I'm glad I did as there are very many footnotes, and it would have irritated me having to flick to the back of the book so often. As it was, the footnotes I needed to read (especially the chapter where Marcus and Leo speak a lot of French) were useful when I was able to just click on them and make them appear on screen – I think the book would have taken me much longer to read if I stuck to the paperback.

I really enjoyed the story – it drew me in straight away and kept me gripped until the dénouement with a justified sense of foreboding. I will definitely have to look at what else L P Hartley has written.

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