What I liked most about this book was the curiosity, honesty and instinctive kindness of Hatty Owen, the character from whose point of view the story is told.
The action of the book is set in the summer of 1960 in the American small town of Millerton. Hattie is eleven, almost twelve, and is deeply content at the prospect of spending her summer vacation at home, amongst the people and places that she has known her whole life. Although Hattie talks easily to the long-term guests at her parents’ boarding house and to the people who run the local stores and the town library, she has only one friend her own age. Partly this is because Hattie is shy and partly it’s because she doesn’t like the other girls very much.
One of the most pleasing parts of the book is the way in which Hattie slowly and almost wordlessly builds a friendship first with a girl who is part of a visiting carnival and then with a girl who comes to board at Hattie’s house. The slow building of trust seemed real to me.
Hattie’s life is changed by the unexpected arrival of her twenty-one-year-old, mentally-ill uncle, Adam, who Hattie had not known existed.
Adam’s illness and its impact on him and those around him is depicted in a deeply empathic way but is all the more disturbing for that. As Hattie becomes aware of Adam’s strange speech patterns, his manic energy, his unpredictable mood changes and the anxiety they create in those around him, she understands how isolated he is and the sense that he has of being the only alien in a world that has no home for him.
Adam’s behaviour and people’s reaction to it becomes a lever which lifts the corners of Hattie’s universe and compels her to reconsider what she knows about herself and her parents and grandparents.
The idea of meeting people who “lift the corners of our universe” and help us re-imagine ourselves is an interesting one but is repeated often enough to make me think, “Ok. I got it already. No need to say it again.”
I am ambivalent about the structure of the novel as a long remembrance of the events of the summer, bracketed by a present-day playing of family movies about the same summer. I see that starting the novel this way builds the main character’s personality and shows how deeply Hattie is embedded in her family while demonstrating the difference between the experience of the people who were there and the record that later becomes the basis of memory but I found it frustrating at the time.
The long remembrance that forms the core of the novel is full of vivid scenes and deep emotions that contrast sharply with the slightly distant reflections on either side of it, which reminded me of the black and white start and finish of “The Wizard Of Oz” movie.
The return to the present-day at the end of the novel to deliver the moral of the story and explain the impact of the events seemed too neat to me and pushed the novel towards being a sermon.
I was initially put off by Judith Ivey’s narration because her voice is too mature to be the voice of the eleven-year-old character but she got the rest of the characters perfectly and the initial dissonance soon went away.
I recommend this short novel to anyone who wants to spend a quiet afternoon absorbed in the life of a young girl who is exploring the nature of difference.