WHEN I ENCOUNTER yet another novel in which the main character is a writer, I sometimes groan. Anna English, the protagonist of Rest Harrow, is more scholar than writer but, like all Ph.D.s, she's very conscious of the publish-or-perish dictum. As the book begins, after an evocative prologue that flashes back to Anna's early childhood, she is on her way from Canada to England. For the next year she'll be living at Rest Harrow, a cottage in Sussex belonging to Rosalind Oliver, another academic, whom she has never met. Her project is to write a scholarly work on Virginia Woolf-, she's chosen the Sussex Downs as her base because Virginia spent much of her life there and because she wants to be near "that red brick university" where important Woolf papers are housed. She has left behind in Canada Luke, her "lover - of sorts," and apart from him she appears to be alone in the world.
Anna is the daughter of a father she never knew and a mother who loved everything English. Now in her 30s, she has so far managed to avoid any kind of long-term commitment - except to her mother, who has been dead for 15 years. Her adult life has been orderly and disciplined; what has compelled her to embark on this lonely adventure, resisting Luke's "concerted campaign to come to England with her"?
As a long-time admirer of Janice Kulyk Keefer's work, especially her short stories, I approached this book with great expectations. However, if I hadn't been asked to review it I doubt I would ever have finished it. As it turns out, that would have been a real pity. For the first 100 pages I couldn't make up my mind what kind of novel this was supposed to be. Was it comic, satirical, a take-off? Desperate, I turned to the publisher's notes for guidance and found that "Rest Harrow is a novel about the closing of boundaries physical, psychological, geographical and cultural." It was much deeper into the book that I came upon these words from Rosalind Oliver: "Christ, Anna, I've never met anyone so frightened of herself." They helped me considerably.
Half an hour before her overseas flight leaves, Anna cuts her finger on Luke's razor, which she "swept into her handbag with all the other bathroom effluvia." When she gets to Rest Harrow she knocks hard on the door of the empty house, even though her absentee landlady has already advised her by mail where she will find the key. When she finally gains entry we learn that she has no food with her. Next she decides to take a bath, after which "Naked, shuddering, she reached for a towel, only to discover that there weren't any." Her luggage is still downstairs; she rushes down to "pry open a suitcase to pull on something warm." At this precise moment her still unmet neighbour, Simon Jeffries, slips in through the front door. Can you blame me for believing I'd stepped into an English farce?
This kind of thing goes on far too long. On her first trip to a nearby supermarket, Anna buys, among other things, "twenty soup-mix packages, all of them Scotch broth." Leaving the soup simmering on the stove, she takes off to the village shop, and comes home to find "the fire alarm bleeping, the kitchen full of smoke, the soup pot a mess of blistered metal."
Fortunately, the book begins to improve tremendously on page 103. From then on I read it compulsively. As I came to know Anna better I also met up with some of the most interesting characters I've come across for a long time. Although a few stereotypes persist, most of the people in the novel are very real. Anna's neighbour, Fiona, deeply wounded by all the world's wrongs and her own personal problems, springs to life in the disturbing way that the author no doubt intended. Fiona's gifted young daughter, Maeve, touches a part of Anna that no one has ever reached before. Gentle Simon, he of the lank grey hair and the dust-furred spectacles, is irritating and endearing at the same time. And Varti, the physician born in England to East Indian parents, who must routinely replace windows smashed by rocks, becomes the kind of friend Anna has never known before.
Much of Rest Harrow is deeply depressing. We see the world as Virginia Woolf must have seen it. But it is not a world without hope. The book Anna ends up writing is a very different one from the dispassionate study she had planned. By the time she leaves England her life has changed drastically. As she prepares to fly back to Canada, she sees herself accepting a newspaper from the steward "knowing that from the solid, menaced world lay no escape to any free and open water," but that "stepping out onto another continent, they'd breathe the same half-poisoned yet sustaining air."
As I finished Rest Harrow, I was happy that this rich, complex story had, finally, satisfied my expectations. But what of those readers who won't make it past the first 100 pages?