I’ve just finished reading “The Novel in the Viola” by Natasha Solomons and thought I would write a brief review of it, largely because it was inspired by a place that left a huge impression on me exactly 27 years ago, during the summer of 1984. You see, the setting of the novel is the village of Tyneford which is based on the “ghost village” of Tyneham in Dorset, which I visited during the summer holidays between sitting my O’ Levels and going on to sixth form college, whilst on a camping holiday with my sister. It was my first trip “South” and we visited all the usual places in the vicinity of Wool, which was where we were camping: Corfe Castle, Lyme Regis, Dorchester, Chesil Beach, Thomas Hardy’s Cottage…But the place that really left it’s eerie mark in my memory, and across all the years since, was Tyneham.
The small village of Tyneham, tucked away in a remote spot along the Dorset coast and left largely untouched by the passage of time for 100s of years (and you can just imagine it can’t you, with its cottages of mellow Purbeck stone, its Elizabethan manor house and church) was literally wrenched from its idyll during the Second World War when it was forcibly requisitioned by the War Office, effectively for target practice. In the guise of doing their duty for the war effort, its inhabitants were forced to evacuate (and believing they would be allowed to return straight after the war, they affixed notes to their doors asking that their homes be treated kindly) but were never enabled to reclaim their village because, once the war was over, the village was requisitioned permanently.
I was just 16 when I last visited Tyneham and yet have never forgotten it; I can vividly recall its tumbledown cottages, half-reclaimed by nature with foliage overclimbing empty window frames and tumbledown walls revealing fireplaces half way up walls where ceilings have disintegrated. The extent of the dereliction of the place suggests more years have gone by than the 70 or so since its last habitation (just 40 when I was last there…) and yet an elaborate 1930s telephone box still intact in the heart of its tumble-down buildings anchors this as very-much a 20th century village, quite recently yet suddenly emptied of its community. Something in its rather abrupt demise, the very visible evidence of a sudden interruption in its human history that has provided a rare opportunity to demonstrate just how quickly and efficiently nature tends to reclaim its own, reminds me of Silchester (see my post earlier post Roman Sichester (Calleva) – Lost or found? ). There is an eerie quality and a sadness to the place that has hung with me all these years and yet a poignancy in the fact that nature has embellished and continued to thrive where man so suddenly left off. There is also a strong element of the “time capsule” about the village; everything is frozen just as it was in 1943 and, apart from the ravages of time and target-practice, the village is uniquely preserved where all of its neighbouring communities have continued to evolve into the 21st century.
As soon as I read the brief synopsis of “The Novel in the Viola” on the back of the book, I guessed that Tyneford was indeed Tyneham as I have never forgotten the impact of visiting that place, all those many years ago. In fact, strangely enough, I had recently searched for photographs of my visit, having come across others from the same holiday during a recent clear-out of the attic, but they have mysteriously disappeared and I can only assume that my sixteen-year-old self put them in some sort of album (yet to be found) because of the fact that the place made such an impact in me. In truth, I bought the novel largely because of the Tyneham-connection…but am happy to report I thoroughly enjoyed the novel in every way and in fact it is the best I have read in some time. Whilst you can imagine that the idea of using Tyneham as a setting for a historic-romance would have been irresistible to almost any author and indeed I am surprised it has taken so long to come about, this is a well researched novel with backbone and substance and I found it hard to put down, it literally flew off the pages in a writing style that was articulate and convincing. Natasha Solomons seamlessly ties the setting together with a portion of her own family history involving the employment of Jewish refugees from bourgeois households as domestic servants in England in the run-up to the war. This is no rough patching together of two unrelated pieces of largely undocumented war-history; the two isolated threads of the Jewish refugee and the doomed fate of Tyneham (or as it is called in the novel, Tyneford) meld seamlessly into a convincing and enjoyable tale.
For me, the novel had all the added significance of the fact that I had never forgotten the haunting place that is Tyneham since my visit as a child and so reading the novel has reminded me that I must go there again. It was only when I had read the last pages of the story and came upon the Acknowledgements, in which the author says [Tyneham is] “somewhere that has haunted me since childhood. I have always wanted to fill it with people again…” that I realised just how much she and I have in common!
Very highly recommended.
“The Novel in the Viola” – Natasha Solomons http://www.natashasolomons.com/