I have wanted to read Rachel Malik’s debut novel, Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves, since its 2017 publication. I have seen relatively few reviews of the book, but my interest was piqued by the praise on its cover. Penelope Lively calls it ‘a skilful recreation of a time and a climate of mind, enriched by persuasive period detail’, and Elizabeth Buchan says that it is ‘quietly gripping and intriguing’. The novel is loosely based upon the life of the author’s grandmother, who left her family home and three children to become a Land Girl during the Second World War.
The protagonists of the piece are two women, Rene Hargreaves and Elsie Boston. Rene is billeted to the rural Starlight Farm in Berkshire, far from her home in Manchester, in the summer of 1940. At first, she finds Elsie ‘and her country ways’ decidedly odd. However, once the women come to know one another, a mutual understanding and dependence is formed. Their life with one another is quiet, almost idyllic, until the peace is shattered by the arrival on Starlight Farm of someone from Rene’s past. At this point, they face trials which endanger everything which they have built, ‘a life that has always kept others at a careful distance.’
The prologue, in which the figure of a solitary woman standing at a window is captured, is beautifully sculpted, and sets the tone of the rest of the novel. Malik writes: ‘Closer, and you would see that she is waiting. There is something of that slightly fidgety intensity, that unwilling patience. A good deal of her life has been spent waiting, one way and another. She’ll carry on waiting, but from today the waiting will be different.’ Chapter one then opens with Elsie’s preparations for her new guest, and Rene’s journey.
Elsie has been alone in her familial home for some time; her parents and three brothers ‘died such a long time ago’, and her sisters have variously married and moved away. The arrival of the Land Girl fills her with dread and uncertainty: ‘She was seeing everything double and she didn’t like it, it put her all at sea. She pulled off her scarf and and rubbed her hands through her hair, trying to clear her thoughts.’ When Rene arrives, her first impressions of the place leave her a little doubtful too: ‘She found it hard to imagine a woman, or a man, living here on their own. It seemed a little strange. Yet she liked the soft red brick of the house, and the orchard with its shrunken fruit trees.’ Interesting dynamics are apparent between the protagonists as soon as they have become acquainted: ‘Rene found herself thinking back to that first afternoon. She had offered her hand to Elsie, and Elsie had reached out hers but it wasn’t a greeting – Elsie had reached out as if she were trapped and needed to be pulled out, pulled free.’
As time goes on, and their anxiety settles, Malik writes of the women’s growing relationship with one another: ‘Elsie wasn’t quite like other people, but that didn’t matter to Rene. Elsie, who had been to the pictures only twice, so long ago, and hated it; Elsie, who didn’t know how to gossip, who had never been to a dance or ever seen the sea; none of it mattered to Rene one bit, because she had fallen hook, line and sinker for Elsie’s lonely power.’ The friendship between Rene and Elsie grows quickly; they come to reveal things about themselves in embarrassment at first, and then with real feeling. Both characters are unusual and believable.
Throughout, I enjoyed Malik’s writing; in the early few chapters, many of the gloriously structured sentences are filled with curious information about her characters. I really liked the gentle way in which she introduced new topics into the story, particularly when these connected with the problems in the wider world. She writes, for instance: ‘As is common when fates are being decided, the two women had no sense of gathering storm clouds.’ The sense of place which Malik crafts, and the way in which this has been woven throughout the novel, feels almost like a point of anchorage: ‘Elsie had known the canal all her life. It was already falling into disrepair when the Bostons came to Starlight. Now, for long stretches, the canal was a memory, an imprint: some overhanging branches where shape suggested a curve below, a patch of bricked walkway of a sudden uneasy flatness in the view ahead; Rene could pick out the weeping willows. And then you came upon the soft red curve of a broken bridge, a sudden hole-punched hole of black water, visible only for a moment.’ Malik’s authorial touch is gentle at times, and firm at moments of crisis; there is a lovely balance struck between the two.
Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is a novel which has a quiet power. A few reviews have mentioned that it starts almost too slowly, but I did not personally feel that this was the case. Malik simply takes a great deal of care in setting her scenes and building the complex relationships between her main characters. I found Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves a lovely, thoughtful, and immersive novel. It is not a happy book, and it took a series of turns which I was not expecting, but this made it all the more compelling.