Like many readers I was first introduced to Nina Bawden as a child, when I read Carrie’s War, which has always remained one of my top three favourite children’s books. A few months ago I read The Grain of Truth – the first of Nina Bawden’s adult novels I had read.
Devil by the Sea – I can imagine not being to everyone’s taste – it is a chillingly dark story. The strange and claustrophobic world of a seaside town at the end of the season is seen through the eyes of unattractive nine year old Hilary. She and her family live in the town, her seven year old brother Peregrine is good while she, Hilary believes is bad. Janet, their seventeen year old half-sister is preoccupied with her innocent dalliance with a married man and the continuing battles with her step-mother. Auntie a once free spirit is now deaf, spends her days secretly beachcombing, hiding her “treasures” in a cave. Hilary’s father Charles goes off to work in the shop each morning, while his wife Alice stays at home. The adults, each concerned with their own lives fail to listen to Hilary.
As the novel opens, Hilary and Peregrine are watching an outdoor seaside show, their half-sister is supposed to be watching them, but is busy with her boyfriend. It is here they see the man Hilary and Peregrine call the Devil.
“Looking at the man sitting next to them, the children thought he must be old too, or sick. He wore a full-skirted naval bridge coat and a blue woollen muffler knotted round his neck. Beneath his cloth cap his face was thin, the cheeks so hollow that his mouth stuck forwards like a dog’s mouth.”
They watch as the man leads another child away, Hilary is at once horrified and fascinated by the man, who slowly draws her into his net. The child Hilary watched him lead away is pictured in the paper the next day, and Hilary knows he is the Devil. Bawden’s depiction of children, their way of thinking, is brilliantly done. Hilary is by turn terrified and interested in the man, she promises to meet him again, but later is terrified of seeing him, of him seeing her in the window of her bedroom.
“She knew him now, for certain, and the knowledge was terrible. She pressed herself against the cold bars, hoping that stillness might save her. What she could not see from the window, her memory supplied: the wide, black coat sweeping low over the twisted foot. Feeling his eyes burn into her, she gave a low cry and closed her own. Holding herself rigid, she thought: he won’t recognise me, not in my nightgown. And then she knew, with awful certainty, that God had marked her for just this occasion. For what other reason, when she had been born so plain, had she been given her one beauty, her bright, unmistakeable, red hair?”
The adults live in fear – there is a murderer in the town, and they want him caught. However the atmosphere of fear which hangs over them all doesn’t stop them being too preoccupied to listen and see what is happening.
There was one slightly odd thing for me – which doesn’t detract from an enjoyable book at all. In the Grain of Truth (1968) that I mentioned I read a while back, the central character’s back story concerns the death of a child who she had always believed she had killed in game not ever realising the boy had an illness. This incident is almost exactly the same as an incident in Hilary’s own back story in this novel. Strange that Nina Bawden should use the same thing twice.
Nina Bawden’s storytelling is compelling, the confusing, frightening world of things we don’t quite understand as children, is a dark place, and one that Nina Bawden understood well. I enjoyed this book a lot, and have more Nina Bawden TBR that I look forward to.