It took me a little while to get into The Small Hours – its style seemed a little brittle and the language almost old fashioned – but after a chapter or so it became clear that this was precisely the right tone for Harriet who narrates the novel in an internal dialogue which is at times darkly funny, at times heart rending. It opens with Harriet’s last session after many years in therapy. Left a large sum of money by the father who made her feel so insignificant, Harriet sets up a nursery school for girls. The school is a wonder, attracting a clientele of smart metropolitan parents all neatly satirised by Susie Boyt. There are treats in the afternoon baked with the help of the children, the school is beautifully decorated in pink and the children are lovingly cared for by Harriet and her staff but there’s a slightly manic edge to it all as Harriet, determined that all the girls will have baskets of fruit for the harvest festival, works through the night elbow deep in marzipan in a desperate attempt to give them the childhood she never had. Boyt scatters vignettes from the past and the future through the novel, and we know from the start that the school will close down after eighteen months. Gradually we learn of Harriet’s miserable childhood, her dashed hopes for reconciliation with her abusive mother and just why, as her determinedly estranged brother declares, their parents should never have had children. It all ends in calamity but not without hope.
I’m a bit late to the party with birthday salutations for Virago but The Small Hours is one of theirs and so it seems appropriate to wish them many happy returns in this post. As Sarah Dunant said in her recent Radio 4 Sunday morning essay, time was when visiting a new acquaintance’s house women readers scanned the bookshelves looking for the distinctive green spines of Virago Modern Classics. They’re now an imprint of Little, Brown owned by publishing giant Hachette and the spines are no longer green but, as Boyt’s sharp, funny novel proves, Virago are still publishing intelligent women’s fiction.