Melissa Harrison writes a monthly Nature Notebook column in The Times. Her debut novel Clay (2013) won the Portsmouth First Fiction Award and was chosen by Ali Smith as a Book of the Year. Her second, At Hawthorn Time, was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Novel Award. In this article, she reviews Antonia White’s Frost in May.
Reading this article, I was struck by the nostalgia that Melissa was experiencing in her re-reading of a book that so changed her in her formative years. With beautiful hard cover copies residing on her shelves for many many years, she was compelled to re-visit it out of curiosity as much as anything else. I’ve often felt the same trepidation with such books – having been shaped by the very reading of particular novels, would I be undone by reading them at a different age and stage in my life. To that end I have not read Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd in almost 35 years and yet I am drawn to copies of it every year.
Melissa recognised that when she first read Frost in May, she failed to identify with the character that had so many similar traits and experiences, but now, the visceral emotion that one experiences when reading things written in print that describe parts of our lives is evident. The young reader in her is extant, but something new has grown. The copy she reads for this review is a gift, and still bears the handwritten inscription which in itself evokes a memory of grief.
The story is about a 9 year old Nanda Grey who arrives at the Convent of the Five Wounds with her father. She is to reside at this school and to develop further the notion instilled in her by her parents of ‘behaving well’. The practice of Catholicism always has the allure of mystery to the ignorant, be it young or old (speaking from experience here), and young Nanda strives to be the very best well behaved Catholic but at a cost. The young Melissa is drawn to the language of indulgences, retreats, saints and vocations and in this article Melissa recognises that ‘[her] childish desire to become a Catholic was not religious conviction, but a reaction to the terrifying spectre of exclusion.’
Melissa finishes her article with a very interesting insight into the author’s writing life and a comparison between White and herself.
Another interesting, and delicate read from Foxed Quarterly. To subscribe or browse their options, please visit their website here.