I was smitten as soon as I saw the title – especially the subtitle – but I would soon discover that this is a book about books and childhood quite unlike any other I have ever read.
There were times when I was enchanted, and there were times when I was bemused; and I have to say that this is a very eccentric memoir indeed.
‘Reading is a form of escape, and an avid reader is an escape artist. I began my escape the moment I started to read. Aged four, I already had sentences stored up; I knew some words and I could put them together in a line.’
I couldn’t help but love sentences like those, the lovely mixture of childishness and poetry in the prose, and the way that Sally Bayley completely opened up the worlds of beloved books, taught herself lessons from them, and drew their characters right into her world. She needed all of that to help her through a chaotic childhood in an wildly unsettled household on the Sussex coast.
Three fictional characters — Jane Eyre, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple and David Copperfield’s Peggotty in David Copperfield — became her touchstones; and they would inspire her to re-set the course of her life.
She put herself into care at the age of fourteen.
That might make you think of misery memoirs, but this book is nothing like that.
“What’s the difference between laughter and tears? They’re very close. I think it depends a lot on your character, whether you laugh or cry. Some people like moping about. Others wouldn’t be seen dead near a tear. Speak for yourself, but I’m a laughing sort of person.”
Sally Bayley launches straight into her story, and it felt like a stream of consciousness that was very nearly bursting its banks as it was so eager to show that stories and real life were inextricably intertwined.
The picture that emerges is of a bohemian household where people drift in and out. Her mother often took to her bed after her infant son disappeared from his cradle under the washing line and will always be unreliable; other relations – aunts and a grandmother – are a little more practical. Sometimes people are taken away in ambulances, and sometimes male strangers are found sleeping on the floor in the morning. One stranger is said to be her father, and he takes the family for a hotel meal; it was a treat but the children didn’t think that grapefruit for dinner a long way from the beach was a treat at all.
None of this is explained. Memories are scattered through the book, beautifully related, and you could just let them wash over you or you could try to put them together like a jigsaw puzzle. You would never find all the pieces but you might find enough to form an idea of what the whole picture might look like ….
It was a little like reading Dorothy Richardson: creativity and confusion!
But it was the books that made the story sing. They offered reliable adults, younger kindred spirits, and so many other characters with stories that helped to explain the world and the people who passed through the household. The way that the worlds created by Christie, Dickens and Bronte merged with the world of one bookish child was sublime.
“Mr Dick’s brother places Mr Dick in a mental asylum. His family say this is necessary because of his madness. What they really mean is that Mr Dick is a peculiar sort of chap. Maze says that when you go all peculiar you are more than likely to find yourself flat out on the hallway floor without knowing how you got there. I think that Mr Dick was just too full of funny turns for this family to manage, After all, the hallway floor is a long way down.”
The child’s voice is perfectly realised, and it is so east to understand how and why she drew fictional characters into her life, and how the things they said and what she learned about their lives offered her away to navigate through her own life.
Of course it was Jane Eyre who made her realise what she had to do:
“Now, years later, I know for sure — it was Jane Eyre who led me away, Jane on her small brown wings. That winter I pushed aside the thick velvet curtain and I stepped onto the ledge. I ruffled up my brown wings; I flapped and flapped. Then I flew up into the sky towards the dark blue sea, where the Northern Ocean, in vast white whirls, coils around the naked melancholy isles; and the Atlantic surge pours in among the stormy Hebrides. I flew to the far off place where the spirit of Jane Eyre lived and breathes”
There were things in this book that I loved – the voice, the literary appropriations, the style – and there were things that I was rather less taken with – the stream of consciousness, the short chapters, the lack of clarity – and I imagine that it will divide opinions.
When I consider ‘Girl With Dove’ as a whole though, I have to say that I loved its spirit, I loved its energy, and most of all I loved that a child in an unstable world could be guided to her path through life by a love of words and language and by the reading of the right books.