Review of The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West
So far this year, I seem to only be reading books in which there is a failed father: first Dickens, then Bronson Alcott, and now Piers Aubrey, the brilliant but irresponsible (to put it mildly) father of The Fountain Overflows. As with Bronson Alcott in Marmie and Louisa, Piers is a background figure, but because of his tendency to put his work before his family–to disastrous effect–and his complete inability to hold onto money, he still has an oppressive hold on his family that held me as a reader in a state of fear for how he would next endanger them. Interestingly, though, they adore him.
I should say from the outset that this novel, which I absolutely love, has no real plot. It’s not like a set of short stories, either. It’s just chapters from a family’s life, with the only defining thread being the question of the girls’ futures: the younger girls, Mary and Rose, the narrator, are destined to follow in the footsteps of their mother, who had a brilliant career as a concert pianist before having a nervous breakdown, while the eldest, Cordelia, is determined to be a concert violinist despite her mother’s insistence that she has no musical talent whatsoever. This probably sounds like a strange plot, and I must say I can’t think of a novel that has anything like that plot. This conflict results in some surprisingly funny writing, which eventually turns sad as the novel progresses. Along the way, the family has a great many adventures, including banishing a poltergeist and getting mixed up in a murder. Does this sound eccentric and directionless? In a sense it is, but I found it all very entertaining, amusing, and moving. It’s also one of the best books about childhood I have ever read. Here is how Rose describes meeting her cousin Rosamund:
“She did not look at all silly, as grown-ups like children to be. […] I knew from everything about her that she was in the same case as myself, as every child I liked, she found childhood an embarrassing state. She did not like wearing ridiculous clothes, and being ordered about by people we often recognized as stupid and horrid, and we could not earn our own livings or, because of our ignorance, draw fully on our own powers.” (101)
I had never read anything by Rebecca West before and was particularly struck by the beauty of her writing. She has a way of taking something small and describing it so as to make it profound one minute, while the next minute discussing something extraordinary (like the paranormal or the ability to read minds) in a matter-of-fact way. She has a way, too, of writing about childhood in a way that is not at all nostalgic. She also makes beautiful use of the comma splice–I now have a terrible feeling I am going to use comma splices all the time on purpose. But unfortunately, no one would know I was doing it on purpose in imitation of this wonderful writer.