This review is written with thanks to riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Books, for my copy of Larchfield.
In 1930, Wystan Auden is offered a teaching position at Larchfield School in Helensburgh. Larchfield does not feel like home for him and he struggles to hide his homosexuality in a society where it is illegal and not accepted. In 2008, Dora is an aspiring poet who moves to Helensburgh with her husband. She gives birth to Beatrice shortly after moving into her new home, and struggles with the realities of motherhood in a tight knit community where she feels everyone is against her. In order to find inspiration for her poetry, she begins to research Auden's life and work, and their two very different worlds collide as they search for meaning in their lives.
The first thing that I noticed about Larchfield was the lyrical style of Clark's writing, perhaps used to reflect the breadth of language that the poets themselves would use. This gave the novel its atmospheric feel, and allowed me to immerse myself in the surroundings that she described. However, this only worked for me in the chapters focusing on Wystan. As the chapters focusing on Dora were written in the same style, I found it difficult to differentiate between the characters, and felt that Dora did not have a unique voice. This made Dora less relatable for me.
I must admit that prior to reading Larchfield, I had limited knowledge of Auden's life and work. Although Clark has fictionalised him, it is clear that she has researched the subject thoroughly and used her knowledge well to inform the novel. Larchfield has encouraged me to read more of Auden's poetry.
When I started reading Larchfield, I was intrigued to see how Clark would bring the stories of Wystan and Dora together. Ultimately, I felt that the way this was done made the plot seem slightly implausible. This aspect of the novel is made clearer towards the end; however, I felt that the subtlety with which Dora's plight is addressed meant that Clark missed an opportunity to explore the themes in the novel in more detail. I was also disappointed by the reaction of Dora's husband, as his attitude towards mental health appeared to be old fashioned. This heightened my belief that the differences between the two time periods across which the novel was set could have been more distinctive.
Overall, I enjoyed the opportunity that Larchfield presented to learn more about a well known literary figure. However, I was disappointed that I felt more ambivalent towards Dora, and I felt that this prevented the novel from living up to my expectations as the two strands of the plot came together.
Larchfield is available from Amazon.