The Girl by Catherine Cookson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a difficult book for me to read, given the central character is presented as the illegitimate offspring of a middle class, relatively well-off family man. This is my second foray into Catherine Cookson as I read my way through a compendium of her novels. I liked this one far less than The Mallen Streak, although it was still an entertaining and engaging read. I think, one of the reasons that I liked it far less, is that I am starting to see difficulties in the way that Cookson presents her female characters, and mindful of her own upbringing as it was presented in her biography, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that she was drawing on her own feelings and emotions of having grown up as somebody’s flyblow, a word used often in this novel, rather than the over-sanitised lovechild descriptor that we fall back on in more progressive times.
There are many reasons to read this novel. You get a feel for what it was like to live in those times, how hard it was for women to make their way in the world. The use of regional language is very illuminating – and I came across phrases that echoed in my mind – taking a girl down (getting her pregnant without marriage first), the rather apt flyblow, liking a duckie, as well as words such as middens and huxter was like finding a treasure trove of the language of the North.
That said, the way in which all of the female characters are portrayed is somewhat problematic. Hannah Boyle is a girl you feel sorry for. Through no fault of her own she is foisted into the family life of her father, together with his wife who does not want her there, and her half-brothers and sisters. Mrs Thornton is portrayed in an entirely unsympathetic way, even though her humiliation and pain at being forced to live with this living and breathing evidence of her husband’s infidelity in her home. Yet rather than make the choice of making her a real person who struggles to set aside her own feelings of betrayal and shame, her inability to accept Hannah as part of the family leads to Mrs Thornton being characterised as evil – an inhumane woman with no kindess in her heart.
Worse, as Hannah ages and makes increasingly poor decisions, the reader’s sympathy for her starts to wane. It is almost as if Cookson finds adult females to be unlikable and struggles to write about them in a positive way.
Again, there is no way that this could be described as romantic novel, and Hannah does not fight for a romance with Ned. This is a bleak, dark novel, with pragmatism and gritty realism at the heart of it, and a recognition that humans are capable of great cruelty to each other, as well as kindness.
I am moving on to my third Cookson next. I am starting to get more of a feel for her narrative style and characterisation. It will be interesting to see what I make of it.
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The Girl by Catherine Cookson