Absent in the Spring is one of the books Agatha Christie published under her penname, Mary Westmacott. You know, those books whose existence so shocked me when I read Agatha Christie’s autobiography a couple of months ago. I still really recommend reading that, by the way. I knew Absent in the Spring wasn’t a detective novel, but other than that I had no idea what to expect. Turns out that, while this book is actually amazing, it’s really really depressing.
Plot summary: Returning from a visit to her daughter in Iraq, Joan Scudamore finds herself unexpectedly alone and stranded in an isolated rest house by flooding of the railway tracks. This sudden solitude compels Joan to assess her life for the first time ever and face up to many of the truths about herself. Looking back over the years, Joan painfully re-examines her attitudes, relationships and actions and becomes increasingly uneasy about the person who is revealed to her.
Rating: * * * *
Alrighty then. So, Joan Scudamore is on her way back from visiting her daughter in Baghdad when she gets stuck in a resting house in the middle of nowhere. She is the only guest, with no books or puzzles, and nowhere to go and nothing to see. She ends up turning inside her own head, chewing over her life choices and attitudes which had previously been the topic of a mild smugness. Now she begins to realise that perhaps she hasn’t been the perfect wife and mother that she had assumed.
To begin with, she fixates on the fact that her husband had been quite relieved when she had left him to go on this trip. She can’t get the sight of him walking away from her out of her head. Then she considers the true role that a close female friend had played in their lives, as well as her children’s attitudes towards her as they matured. She looks at the choices she made on behalf of the whole family, and whether she was always quite so selfless as she had always assidiously made out.
The truth was that Rodney had been much too weak with Tony. He should have put his foot down. Firmness, that was the thing. Why, thought Joan, where would Rodney be, I should like to know, if I hadn’t put my foot down? She felt a warm little glow of self approval. Crippled with debts, probably, and trying to raise a mortgage like Farmer Hoddesdon. She wondered if Rodney really quite appreciated what she had done for him…
This book is brutal, there’s really no other word for it. The reader has to sit idly by whilst Joan Scutamore performs a vicious character assassination on herself. It’s actually quite hard to read, in parts. Not because of the prose or the structure, but because it apparently struck a raw nerve for me.
The tone is completely different from Agatha Christie’s detective novels. It’s chattier and less formal. We’re inside Joan’s head for all but the epilogue, and parts of it are almost stream of consciousness. It honestly flies past, despite the slow build nature of the topic. Also, whilst her Poirot and Marple books tend to be quite monotone (I love them, don’t get me wrong) and steady, Absent in the Spring is nothing but emotion.
Despite the overaching Point of the book, Joan Scudamore isn’t actually unlikeable. Yes, she’s smug and a bit judgemental, but it’s in a gentle 40s housewife kind of way. She’s not unkind; she strives to be quite the opposite. It’s therefore really quite difficult to read her slow descent into self-awareness. At points I found myself making excuses for her behaviour, and wanting to have a stern word with her family for being so harsh and apathetic towards her.
She and Rodney had really been very conscientious parents. And the children had really been very satisfactory, especially when they were quite small – such attractive, handsome children. Much better brought up than the Sherston boys, for instance. Mrs Sherston never seemed to mind what those children looked like. And she herself seemed to join in with them in the most curious activities, crawling along the ground as a Red Indian – uttering wild whoops and yells – and once when they were attempting a reproduction of a circus, giving a most lifelike imitation of a sealion!
The fact was, Joan decided, that Leslie Sherston herself had never properly grown up.
I wanted to give it a five star rating, based on how it completely altered my mood for the day. Only the best written books can make you see your world in a different way, even if it’s just for a short period. However, the ending knocked it down by a star. It’s not that it’s terrible, but I think it would have been better if Absent in the Spring ended as the train pulled away. It’s probably a realistic ending, but it would have been better not to know.
And that last sentence just punched me in the heart. Jesus. Brutal, much?
In short, Absent in the Spring is a masterpiece and I don’t use that word lightly. I pulled down her Autobiography to check what Agatha Christie had said about it, which was ‘(It was) the one book that has satisfied me completely… the book that I had always wanted to write, that had been clear in my mind. It was the picture of a woman with a complete image of herself, of what she was, but about which she was completely mistaken.’ She wrote the whole thing over three days, calling in sick to the hospital dispensary where she worked to do so. Honestly, this book is incredible. It’s very honest, unsparing and brilliant.
The Best Book I Read in July 2018
Read my review of Agatha Christie’s Autobiography, which was easily one of the best books I’ve read all year.