I waxed lyrical about the first of Elizabeth Berridge’s novels which I read, Across the Common. On the basis of reading the wonderful and absorbing novel, which I reviewed two weeks ago, I broke my year-long book-buying ban in order to pick up three more paperback editions of other Berridge books. Touch and Go is a far later work, first published in 1995, and marked her return to novel writing after more than a decade.
The protagonist of Touch and Go is a woman in her late thirties named Emma Rowlands, who has just gone through quite a nasty divorce. She has returned to the quaint Welsh village in which she spent her childhood, taking with her ‘no more than some favourite pieces of china, books, flowers, and her small pregnant cat.’ She has left behind her broken marriage, a flat in London, and a teenage daughter, who has fled to India to escape her parents’ constant arguments. She has come into the inheritance of the old doctor’s surgery and house in the village, and is both nervous and excited to build a new future for herself.
Touch and Go begins in the ‘middle of October, with dusk curtaining the hills’. As soon as she arrives, Emma begins to notice changes within the village ‘that marked her as a stranger and mad to come back.’ The house which she has returned for, Domen Gastell, is ‘solid, red and four-square on top of the hill’. In her initial darkness-tinted exploration of her new abode, Berridge gives a series of wonderfully vivid descriptions: ‘She stalked over to see what kind of view there was from the long window, kneeling on a wide window-seat to look out into the damp, dark scenery of the garden beyond the bushes.’
Throughout, Berridge provides such a realistic portrayal of Emma, and her myriad feelings. On her first full day, for instance, Emma ‘felt a painful excitement; an almost uncontrollable pleasure which gave her a headache; a giant fear that all this would be snatched away.’ One quickly gets a feel for how much the house, and the fresh start, means to her: ‘Emma was flushed with exploration, dizzy with ownership.’
Rather than her life in progressive London, Emma finds a community which holds onto its traditional values. As her time in Wales goes on, Emma meets many figures from her past – a slightly disgruntled housekeeper who seems to come with the inheritance of the house, and a rather bossy childhood friend named Debby, for instance, who quickly makes her wonder about her place in the friendship: ‘Should she allow Debby to take over? For years she had allowed her husband to do just that and was only now piecing together her own previous identity.’
Berridge creates wonderful atmosphere in Touch and Go. In one of my favourite passages from the book, she writes: ‘The house was very silent and she was held in a strange immobility, as if she were in the middle of a web, and the threads of other people’s lives dense around her.’
Where Berridge’s real strength lies here is in the differences she outlines between the generations. Emma’s mother Adela, for instance, is chiefly concerned with appearances. When we first meet her, Adela, who has not seen Emma for quite some time, has these initial thoughts: ‘Had she put on weight and was the colour in her cheeks the beginning of weathering? Could she warn her about broken veins?… She hoped that Emma was not letting herself go; at her age she could surely marry again.’ This proves a marked contrast to the attitude of Emma’s daughter, Charlotte: ‘Evidently Emma’s move, exhausting and traumatic to her, meant little to her daughter, caught up as she was with exhilarating new experiences: jewels and saris… a whole dazzling continent to discover.’
Touch and Go is a very readable novel, but I must admit that I did not feel as absorbed by it as I did with Across the Common. The secondary characters in this novel were not as vivid to me, and until close to the end, there is not a great deal of plot. A lot of the narrative in Touch and Go, too, is taken up with conversations between Emma and various friends and neighbours, almost all of whom reminisce about her parents. There are some very tender and memorable moments within it, though. It reminded me somewhat of Dodie Smith’s familial sagas, novels which I really enjoy.
Berridge has been getting somewhat more recognition over recent months, which is wonderful to see. I only hope that publishers follow suit and reissue all of her novels in the very near future. I can certainly see that Berridge will become one of my favourite authors, and feel as though I have a great deal of literary treats in store as I make my way through her oeuvre.