Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Barbara Noble's Doreen

I finished Barbara Noble's 1946 novel Doreen this weekend and found it quite interesting; I'm grateful to my new book club for getting me to read it, as I'd never heard of it before. I can't say I thought it was a brilliant novel, but it was a fun read and it gave insight into an interesting time period.

It's set in World War II and is about what happens to children evacuated from London; Doreen is a 9 year old whose mother has decided she has taken her chances keeping Doreen in the city for too long, and when the opportunity arises to place her in a good home in the country, she takes it. Of course, this is difficult for mother and daughter both, but Doreen settles into her new home fairly quickly.

Here is the problem, however, since Doreen's new family -- the childless Geoffrey and Francie Osbourne -- quickly fall in love with her, and Doreen's mother, when she finds out about it, becomes jealous. Doreen is caught between her love of her mother and her affection for the Osbournes and enjoyment of her new life. The novel centers around this conflict; most of the adults are well-meaning, but they find themselves at odds with one another and the unwilling Doreen must try to keep peace.

The novel is interesting because of its depiction of London and the countryside during the war; Noble gives descriptions of bomb shelters and air raids in the city, and the quieter but still unsettled life of the country. Even more so, it's interesting because of the class dynamics among the characters. Doreen's mother is working class; she cleans offices and struggles to keep up a respectable life while living in a decaying house turned into apartments on a seedy street. Doreen's mother and father are separated, which makes things even more complicated. The Osbournes, on the other hand, are comfortably middle class. They live on a hill above a town, a situation meant to indicate their status relative to the town's working class residents.

So Doreen experiences new comforts with the Osbournes -- her own room, a garden, occasional presents -- and it becomes harder and harder to imagine her going back to her cramped London life. Her mother is torn between wanting to keep her daughter safe and fearing that she will lose her loyalty and affection. The book showed me a little of the attitudes toward class distinctions at the time -- surprisingly strict, I thought -- and it probed the psychological effects of the disruptions of war and evacuation very effectively.

It's a slow-moving novel; I wondered for a long time when something exciting was going to happen. It did, eventually, but this book is more meditative than action-packed. It isn't a stunning novel, but in its quiet way, it's quite good.