Saturday, 16 April 2011

Little Gods by Anna Richards

Anna Richard's first novel is the story of Jean, an oversized baby born in 1920 who grows to giant adulthood by the start of World War II - a war which will bring her new opportunities for pleasure and pain.  Tormented by her ghastly mother, Wisteria, the child Jean is underfed and overworked in an effort to contain her growth.  Her size makes her schoolfellows afraid of her ("I broke someone's arm once when I fell on her") but beautiful Gloria is not scared of Jean.  Gloria gives Jean some sense of normal life, with her affectionate parents and determination to make Jean socialise.  The outbreak of war - which also thankfully dispatches Wisteria - gives Jean an answer to her perpetual question: what am I for?  Engaged as part of a demolition team, given clothes - a set of overalls - that finally fit her, Jean develops a sense of self and purpose.  The war also brings her love, in the form of a rather small and ratlike GI whose sexual ideal is a giantess; Danny will eventually take her to California where she will explore other, often extraordinary, ways of being useful.

I was drawn to this book because of a personal affinity with the theme; I've been 5 feet 10 inches tall since I was thirteen, and well remember the feeling of being oversized in a primary school designed for tiny infants.  But there is much to offer readers of all heights.  Everyone will have felt at some point that they do not fit the world around them; Jean's story magnifies that experience and shows how it can be dealt with to magnificent effect.  Jean herself is a marvellous character, aware of her strength and the capacity for mayhem, and therefore determined to be gentle and restrained; her slow-burning pleasure in the discovery of all the things her marvellous body can do is beautifully realised.  Indulged Gloria, daughter of sweet-shop owners, could be an irritating do-gooder but she is drawn with depth and sincerity.  Even the monstrous Wisteria is allowed sufficient humanity to stop her being a caricature. 

The quality of the writing is also excellent.  I could quote almost any paragraph, but here is a paragraph about Jean's war: "Death came often to the seaside.  Jean grew strong shifting tons of rubble left over from lives taken, and the survivors added their own lifesongs to the din around them.  The air crackled with the static of people.  It could go in any direction, the static, numbing life or making it a fierce itch that can never be quelled.  Jean let hers sing through her arms and legs as she worked; she didn't want to stop at the end of each day because then she would be deafened by the excess of life within iner and reminded that what she was, was not enough.  Not yet."  The novel exploits the remarkable images available in wartime, and at all times to giant young women, to great metaphorical effect.  Richards also has a keen eye for the ridiculous and Jean's size means that there is a great deal of humour in the book, not all of it farcical or at her expense.

If I have one quibble it is with the section of the book in America in which Jean becomes involved with an evangelical movement.  This seemed to me to be a rather broad caricature of American society and to be essentially plot-driven, rather than telling us much more about Jean.  But there is much to admire and enjoy, and Jean's story is thoroughly absorbing and enriching.  I hope Anna Richards is working on an equally inventive second novel.

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