Penelope Hinton is sunk in grief. For twenty-five years she and her husband Jamie, an artist, have had a passionate relationship that is the most important aspect of her life. Jamie has his art, and Penelope gives that primacy over the life of their family She is the conduit between him and his admirers and colleagues. Their children know where her first loyalty lies. When Jamie absent-mindedly steps off the kerb into the path of a lorry she is ‘amazed and affronted.’ She is isolated in her grief because she and Jamie ‘had a special kind of communication which excluded everyone else.’
And it is this sense of frozen isolation that give this book its title.
She continued to be enclosed in this hard shell of unspoken feelings and undelivered comment like a rose drowned horribly in an inverted glass globe.
How odd and fortunate that her lonely visits to the Manor Road laundrette should be the way out of her isolation and into a different life. For here she meets the owner, Pye Rumbelow, and it is to his interest in her that she gradually responds. As their friendship deepens, his influence has wider ripples in both her life and those of others with whom she is close.
And here is Pye Rumbelow, our hero, head and shoulders over the other male characters in Rose Under Glass, in perception, courage and ability to make money. In his laundrettes
…he loved to sit and watch his dutiful machines that purred and pulsated in obedience to the red lights and switches; he almost longed for them to go wrong, so that he could manipulate them with his deft hands, unscrewing tops and regulating the sudden mad gurgle that indicated an over-exuberance of suds.
Not only does he have laundrettes, he has also opened coffee shops next door to his laundrettes; he sees opportunities and makes money.
He and Penelope have coffee together and slowly she begins to relax and confide in him. Then they dine together and take night walks around London
…she turned, leaned on the parapet and stared back at the Houses of Parliament. Lights pricked out, but the terrace was in darkness. Beyond, on the embankment, more lights, reflected in the water. The river flowed beneath them, its dark liquid smell rising…Warehouses stood out against a tawny sky, grey, ragged clouds were transformed into tedded golden straw.
When Penelope comes to like and trust Pye she introduces him to Spencer, stuck in Wales but yearning for the life of a publisher in London.
And so great change rips apart the lives of Spencer’s family, his wife Nika and his son Lewis, who love their home in Wales and have no desire to live in London.
Elizabeth Berridge creates these different worlds with consummate skill, whether it is rural Wales, or Covent Garden in the early hours of the morning. Here is an event that takes place on Nika’s last night in her beloved home in Wales. After a strange night listening to jazz and leaving her husband alone with his former lover she hears the doorbell
The old man who stood there was very tall, his shadow cut as sharp as a knife across the floor. Although they were blinded by the moon which now stood directly above the house, they could sense the exultation on his face. Like a prophet he held up his right hand, and from it dangled the body of a young vixen. blood dripped from its delicate snout on to the pattered stones of the storm porch. It was obvious that life had only recently been battered out of it.
Rose Under Glass is the third novel by Elizabeth Berridge I have read, and probably the best so far. She is alive to class differences in a way not many writers of her generation are. Her ability to write place, whether it be an old house in Wales, a little mews flat in London, a working-class school or a restaurant in Greece is remarkable. Her characters argue, betray each other, have second thoughts, keep sorrows to themselves, gradually confide in others, and come to new realizations about their lives.
An absorbing read not to be missed. One of my best for the year.