Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Ha-Ha (Dawson) 165

Paperback reader pointed out a review of this book to me last week and I knew that I HAD to read this VMC straight away. I immediately ordered it off Amazon, and to my surprise it was delivered later that night; it turned out that the marketplace seller lives in Oxford and got her husband to drop it off for me! What wonderful service and much better than being messed around by Royal Mail, which has happened a little too frequently for my liking recently.

The book tells the story of Jennifer. We learn that she has recently been removed from Oxford where she was studying for a degree at Somerville; she is now in a mental institution run by kindly nuns trying to come to terms with her life. As the story progresses, we find out more about how her illness has manifested itself and her struggles to fit in with normal society. She is working for a couple who live near to the institution, cataloguing their books. She enjoys the order and the quietness of this occupation. She spends much time in the Ha-Ha, or garden, nearby, often on her way home from work, and becomes friendly with another inmate and develops her first relationship.

I was interested in this book for a number of reasons. Firstly, the main protagonist, Josephine, has recently attended Oxford University, which is the institution where I took my first degree and for whom I work. Secondly, she is no longer at Oxford, since she has been removed due to mental illness. Both I, and a couple of close friends struggled with different mental health problems whilst we were studying at Oxford; my friends took years out, but I struggled on, but this is something I really empathised with. Thirdly, she is being rehabilitated into "normal" life
through working as a librarian to catalogue books for a couple who live near to the hospital. I am a librarian, and throughout my degree I spent the holidays working in a library at home, and I credit the work and my colleagues there with helping me to stay sane. Librarianism is surprisingly good for mental health; rationalisation and organisation is surprisingly satisfying and helping people is another feel-good element to the occupation.

As Leaning Towards The Sun notes, one of the best things about this book is the way that mental illness is not as far-out as it is sometimes portrayed. Jennifer's problems were characterised by her inability to fit in with conventional society; although she has a relapse at the end of the book when her new relationship ends, we are left feeling hopeful that she will be able to overcome her difficulties.

Although Dawson, who lived in the same county as me and in the same village that one of my colleagues lives, wrote 5 other novels this is the only one that is published by Virago. I intend to add her to my list of authors to watch out for.

It's only been published once by Virago, cover image above.


  1. Oh yes this is definitely a VMC that I have to read too. You can tell from the review that you enjoyed it and not just because of the uncanny personal connections.

  2. That sounds intriguing; I'd like to read it at some point. It doesn't appear in my copy of "Librarians in fiction: a critical bibliography" (!). Mind you, neither does Veronica Stallwood's crime novel "Oxford exit", which apparently includes an accurate depiction of introducing OLIS at the Bodleian...

  3. I can lend it to you if you would like Owen (my current book-space crisis means I am farming out books to all of my friends). The Veronica Stallwood that you mention is probably her best (she used to work at the Bodleian); the Graduate Trainee gets murdered!! (And the library part is extremely interesting). I would love to see a copy of that bibliography...

  4. I'm slow making my way here but am glad to see that you were able to get your hands on a copy and that you enjoyed it. This story was great on many levels and your personal connections made for an endearing read I'm sure.

  5. Just finished this and thought it was fascinating and very well-written. I always find that if a book has anecdotes similar to what I've experienced, it makes the reading a lot more involved, and looks like this book did the same for you.