Monday, November 12, 2012

"The Small Hours"

Susie Boyt is the author of several acclaimed novels and a memoir, My Judy Garland Life, which was serialised on Radio 4 and will be staged at the Nottingham Playhouse in spring 2013. Since 2002 she has written a weekly column about art and life for the Financial Times. She lives in London with her family.

Boyt applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, The Small Hours, and reported the following:
Page 69 is probably the most daring page of The Small Hours. It is a few freak paragraphs set twenty years after the book ends, and consists of a conversation between two women who, in the rest of the book, we only see as four year old girls. By chance they find themselves in the same maternity ward, after giving birth to their first babies, and begin to reminisce about their amazing kindergarten teacher. Her extreme kindness they have not forgotten, nor her sudden demise, although they don’t remember exactly what occurred.

The teacher in question, Harriet Mansfield, is the brilliant and disturbed heroine of The Small Hours. The school she creates is designed to be like a little Eden for her precious pupils, filled with the very best that life has to offer. There are chickens in the garden and a Shetland pony, there are picnics and a doll’s hospital and a real street market and a cafĂ© where the girls are actually allowed to assist the indulgent owners. For her precious pupils who are rich in everything but care there is nothing that Harriet will not do. But what affect will this stunning new venture have on the fact that her real family despises her? How literal can you be about repairing the damage of the past?

From page 69 of The Small Hours:
‘Almost. What was she called again? Margaret?’

‘Harriet! How could you forget?’

‘Because I was like, four?’

‘I remember everything. I remember that big pink room filled with toys. I remember that whatever I said I wanted to do she always said ‘Absolutely!’ I remember when it was Halloween that time she covered the whole place in woolly cobwebs and pom-pom spiders and there were like a thousand pumpkins all flickering, and pink iced buns hanging from the ceiling on strings and we knelt on the floor and tried to eat them wearing black cat costumes. And apple bobbing and then all the parents going Oh my God! Everything’s so amazing. I think I’ve still got a picture of you and me standing next to a gingerbread house we made there. It’s so elaborate. It even has windows. D’you remember? She melted clear mints in a double boiler and left them to cool. I thought if someone is prepared to go to all that trouble on my account, then I can't be that bad.

‘She was really inspired.’

‘I’ll never forget that time I drew all over the piano with green felt tip. I knew I wasn’t meant to, and she didn’t even tell me off. It was one of those indelible markers as well and some guy came a from a piano shop and took half the keys away for a couple of days and brought them back perfect again. And she wasn’t even cross. All she said, was, “I shouldn’t really have left that pen lying about.” I was so moved.’

‘I can’t even remember what happened in the end.’

‘I just remember seeing her face and thinking that her heart had broken. I remember saying that to my mum.’

‘And what did your mum say?’

She just said, ‘Don’t be so idiotic, or something along those lines.’


‘I know, but you know, with my mum, I don’t mean anything nasty by it, but even her biggest fan would say that she’s a total sadist. I mean - Oh hello! I think he’s waking up now. Time to open the milk factory.
Learn more about the book and author at Susie Boyt's website.

The Page 99 Test: My Judy Garland Life.

--Marshal Zeringue