“Crusoe’s Daughter” by Jane Gardam is not everyone’s cup of tea read. It is not the usual fare that novels have to offer. It is different and written in a manner that takes time sinking into and enjoying the book. I went through that and once I did I could not stop reading it. Maybe because it is about books and a young girl understanding their need and loving them over a period of time. It is surreal and also elements of magical realism are present in it which makes it all the more interesting. These are my initial thoughts about the book.
Jane Gardam has always maintained that style of writing which is has been consistent, right from God on the Rocks to Crusoe’s Daughter, that of dry wit and a sense of dramatic irony. I remember reading, “God on the Rocks” for the first time at eighteen and being absolutely awe-struck by the book. The eccentrics, which obviously were the secondary characters, were my most favourite. The same applies to this one.
Readers would be surprised to know that “Crusoe’s Daughter” was first published in 1985, and now reprinted by Europa Editions. The book begins when Polly Flint, a mere five-year old girl arrives with her widowed father at Oversands, a big yellow house inhabited by his wife’s older unmarried sisters. Shortly after the arrival, Polly’s father dies, leaving her to be brought up by the sisters, in an isolated place, where there are virtually no more children but Polly. In her loneliness, Polly turns to books and their comfort. In doing so, she identifies herself the most with Robinson Crusoe, who lived in isolation on an island for twenty eight years. She finds a way to cope with her loneliness and anguish as she grows up.
Polly knows that she has to make her own life given the circumstances. For instance, when she is twelve, she rejects communion and its idea. The realism in her head is too much to be handled by anyone. Polly then moves to live with her elderly family members, Arthur Thwaite and his sister Cecilia, who live in Yorkshire moors, some distance away. Here again, life takes a different turn. Their home is an artist’s retreat. Polly meets various new people – poets, thinkers, writers, believers, musicians and dreamers and this further shapes her character and persona, leading to an end which will for sure surprise readers and make them drop their jaw slightly.
The things that worked for me in the book: The setting. Northeast Rural England is not a place I would be visiting sometime too soon. Reading about it and trying to imagine the moors (as I did while reading Wuthering Heights) and the scenes that play out is a different experience by itself. The charm is unbearable. The characters as I mentioned earlier took me by surprise with their wide range of eccentricity and comfort provided to Polly at times. Ms. Gardam may not talk about them in detail during the course of the book, however when she does, she ensures that their voices are heard.
At times the pace of the book got to me. It was turning out to be slower than what I had expected, but I kept reading, because of the writing and the plot. Polly as a character is hard to put my finger on. She is everything and at the same time, she springs from the pages and does something totally unexpected. Kudos to Ms. Gardam for visualizing and bringing her to life in our heads.
The writing is not only descriptive but also insightful. From the thoughts of the single sisters to Polly’s views on things are unique and refreshing. Jane wants us to empathize with her characters, what they are going through, but never sympathize. So from that perspective, the book is not sentimental and I am glad it isn’t.
“Crusoe’s Daughter” might be termed by some as a coming-of-age book, but for me it is more than that. It is discovering oneself through everything. It is about relationships formed in the world known to us and in the world that isn’t known to most people. “Crusoe’s Daughter” is a cracker of a read that should not be missed. But be warned: It is slow. It is not a thriller. It is not your usual fare. So read it only if the story appeals to you.