Larchfield by Polly Clark



Polly Clark: Larchfield

Published By: riverrun

Buy It: here


What The Blurb Says:

It’s early summer when a young poet, Dora Fielding, moves to Helensburgh on the west coast of Scotland and her hopes are first challenged. Newly married, pregnant, she’s excited by the prospect of a life that combines family and creativity. She thinks she knows what being a person, a wife, a mother, means. She is soon shown that she is wrong. As the battle begins for her very sense of self, Dora comes to find the realities of small town life suffocating, and, eventually, terrifying; until she finds a way to escape reality altogether.

Another poet, she discovers, lived in Helensburgh once. Wystan H. Auden, brilliant and awkward at 24, with his first book of poetry published, should be embarking on success and society in London. Instead, in 1930, fleeing a broken engagement, he takes a teaching post at Larchfield School for boys where he is mocked for his Englishness and suspected – rightly – of homosexuality. Yet in this repressed limbo Wystan will fall in love for the first time, even as he fights his deepest fears.

The need for human connection compels these two vulnerable outsiders to find each other and make a reality of their own that will save them both. Echoing the depths of Possession, the elegance of The Stranger’s Child and the ingenuity of Longbourn, Larchfield is a beautiful and haunting novel about heroism – the unusual bravery that allows unusual people to go on living; to transcend banality and suffering with the power of their imagination.


What I Say:

There is a price to pay for hiding from the truth,

One can love, but never be loved. 

One can describe freedom, but never be free“.

Larchfield is a novel unlike any other I have read for a long time.  It is massive in its scope, ambitious in its creativity and tackles issues which would seem contrived in the hands of some authors.  It is also a novel where I read the first few pages and knew I was going to love it immediately.

This is the story of Wystan H Auden, the poet, who takes up a teaching post in Larchfield school,  Helensburgh in 1930 and Dora, who moves there with her husband Kit in the present day.  The narrative shifts between Dora and Wystan, and we uncover more about what each of them feels thinks and wants in their lives.

Dora and Kit move to a seemingly idyllic flat, with picture perfect gardens and a belief that this will be the new start they need as they prepare for the birth of their first baby.  From the outset, it is very apparent that Dora feels unnerved by the isolation and scrutiny her arrival in Helensburgh will bring.  Dora is not like other women in the village, who are entrenched in the teachings of the church and the intricacies of the tight knit community.  She is a creative and intelligent woman who wants to ensure that she forges her own identity and gains recognition for her academic work.  As she tentatively settles in to her new home, the occupants of the flat upstairs start to make it very clear that Dora is not welcome, as their son was allegedly promised the flat.

Wystan has retreated to Larchfield after a failed engagement, and is aware that his arrival at the school is preceded by his reputation as an enigmatic and mysterious poet.  He knows that his homosexuality is a facet of himself that he has to hide, and he is isolated from the world around him as he realises any admission of his sexuality could result in serious repercussions.

Dora and Wystan exist in two different decades, but are united in the loneliness and isolation they feel. Polly’s beautifully eloquent writing links these two similar souls, both poets, and at odds with the world around them.  When Dora is confined to bed after nearly losing her baby, her sense of estrangement and isolation from Kit and the world  becomes more and more resonant.   When their baby daughter is born prematurely, she is thrust into a world of motherhood she could never have envisaged.

Recognising a fellow unhappy outsider, Wystan becomes the protector of Jamie Taylor, a young boy at Larchfield who is subjected to bullying by his fellow pupils, and unwanted sexual attention from one of the teachers. Wystan is also increasingly aware of how at odds he is with the heterosexual, patriarchal ideologies and practices of the boarding school – he is expected to participate in a rugby match that causes him to comment:

This is the space that heroes occupy, that men understand.  Why does he not feel pride?  Why does he feel so lost?”

Wystan articulates in that single statement the very essence of his battle and the source of his unhappiness.  Wystan is hiding who he truly is in order to fit in, and is allowing his identity to be shaped by what others believe a man should be, increasingly to the detriment of his happiness.  He finds solace in visiting the beach, where briefly he can be at peace, and one day he launches a bottle with a message inside into the sea, asking for contact.

Polly Clark constantly asks us to question what is identity? How is it formed and by whom? For me, the poignant issue that ran throughout this novel was whether it was better to live the life you want, or the one that society thinks you should have?

Dora is thrown into motherhood and is dealing with it as best as she can.  She is on her own in a new town, with an increasingly distant husband.  Dora is having to deal with scrutiny from social services who have been called in after a tip off from Mo and Terrence, her neighbours upstairs.  Like Wystan, she is feeling isolated and overwhelmed, and her identity is being slowly eroded as she is identified solely as a mother or a a wife.  This is sharply brought into focus when Dora is visited by her friends, who refer to her as RJ, which is the name she wrote under, as she is forced to confront the fact that she is no longer that person.

 “Her existence, her visibility was uncertain even to her husband”.

As the pressure of caring for a premature baby, as well as her concerns about her husband encroach on Dora’s thoughts, she starts to hear a voice saying ‘I can win this’, but has no idea what this means.  Like Wystan, she finds comfort in visiting the beach, and finds a bottle with a message inside, and a phone number.  Dora calls it, and someone at Larchfield answers.  Dora has found Wystan, and he has found her.

This is the beauty of Polly’s writing.  The interaction between Dora and Wystan feels natural and totally believable.  They co-exist in each other’s worlds and the narrative shifts again to one where as the reader, you are not sure whether this is a an actual physical connection or a depiction of Dora’s deteriorating mental state.  As the lines between fiction and reality become blurred, we see Wystan finding love with Gregory and they escape for a holiday where they can truly be happy.

After a number of events, culminating in leaving her daughter in a car for a short period of time, Dora is removed from her family and given medical help,  In a beautiful and elegiac dream like sequence, Dora and Wystan step closer to a life together, but then she makes a choice about what direction she wants her future to take.

Larchfield is an exceptional novel, that captivates the reader from the first page and does a very rare thing. Not only does it sensitively and intelligently address many themes such as motherhood, identity and societal expectations, but Polly’s writing ensures you  completely empathise with Dora and Wystan and the challenges they face.  All you wish is for Dora and Wystan to find the happiness and contentment they truly deserve.

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