As this novel opens in 2006 Mavis Gaunt is seventy years old, living in the Devonshire cottage she once inherited from her aunt. She is surrounded by people she has known for many years, still deeply affected by the memories of long ago. When Eve and her young son Archie arrive in the village and strike up a friendship with Mavis, it awakens more memories of the past for Mavis, and especially of events that took place in the winter of 1963. Eventually troubled single mum Eve, whose mother was from Shipleigh originally, is able to settle some of the questions about her own past.
As a child, Mavis Gaunt was evacuated to the village of Shipleigh in Devon during the war, living with an aunt of her father’s. Later Mavis returns to London and her warring parents, taking with her, her memories of the elusive Frances Upcott and her brothers, Robert and Tom. It is a time that is short lived, and in the years that follow, boarding school, life in London with her French mother, she remembers Shipleigh as a kind of heaven.
“It was customary, if the weather was fair, to conduct the extended assembly outdoors in the schoolyard. Duly, Mr Bird had fetched the maypole from the shed. He’d set it up in the middle of the dirt patch, anchoring it with sandbags disguised with bundles of lightings borrowed from the wood store. Against the yard wall, he was in the process of arranging two rows of a dozen or so small wooden chairs to accommodate the audience.”
However it is not until the 1960’s when she is in her twenties that Mavis finds reason to return to shipleigh, this time to stay. Now she and Frances become uneasy friends and Mavis begins to involve herself in the lives of the Upcott’s farm.
I really enjoyed An Inventory of Heaven, and I am glad I got a chance to read it; not having heard of the author, I didn’t know what to expect from this her third novel. Though if I am honest I don’t think I expected that much of it. I like it when I am proved to be wrong. An Inventory of Heaven is actually hugely readable with some good characterisation, I especially liked Mavis, while other characters, who are maybe less likeable, are interesting because they are flawed. There is a non-linear structure to this extremely readable novel, a structure which I do still quite like, and think works well, although it is a device that is used so much these days that it ceases to be as powerful as it once was. As a hook to keep the reader waiting for a big reveal of course it is very effective, however, if I am honest, I do think, it is becoming a rather obvious way of telling a story across two time periods. As I have said, it’s a device I quite like, but then I read fewer of these contemporary novels than I did, and so encounter it less often. I am aware however that many novels now are written in this way. On the plus side there is a really wonderful sense of time and place, particularly in some of the early sections of the novel set during a rural wartime. There is a reflective nostalgic feel to this novel which I really enjoyed.
“It wasn’t until years after it all happened that I was able to discover this: that in the backs of kitchens and village halls, in choir stalls, at bus stops, there are places where scraps of love persist.”