Trends and Truth: I loved Lynne Reid Banks’s “The Warning Bell”

I have read the trendy controversial novel of the moment.  

A few weeks ago I read Jeanine Cummins’s American Dirt, a pageturner about Mexican migrants which has apparently sparked fierce controversy on the grounds of  “cultural appropriation.”  It is now an Oprah pick.  I wasn’t keen on Cummins’s issue-oriented best-seller–because of the style, not the content–but it is hardly the definitive work on the subject, so why obsess?  It’s a mediocre novel.  Move on.  (I wrote about American Dirt here.)

So what did I read this weekend?  Something great, you’ll be happy to know.  A few years ago I stumbled upon Lynne Reid Banks’s 1960 classic, The L-Shaped Room, a feminist novel about a former actress who gets pregnant in her late twenties and moves into a rooming house.  (The stigma of unwed pregnancy used to be great.)  I’ve been looking for her other books ever since.

And now Sapere Books has reissued her 1986 novel, The Warning Bell, which, I assure you, is just as good, and treats similar issues.  It is one of those novels that straddle the line between literary and pop fiction.  It takes a few chapters to get into it, but then I found it unputdownable. 

The heroine, Maggie, feels guilty much of the time.  Raised in Scotland by a strict father and a gentle, fearful mother, Maggie feels split: at home she is Margaret Robertson, her parents’ dull daughter, and outside she is bright Maggie, who takes chances.  Encouraged by an impulsive English teacher, Maggie takes a big chance.  She accepts her father’s money, pretending to take a domestic science course in London for two years, while she is actually going to drama school.

Being an actress, of course, is not easy.  And Maggie frequently hears the voice of her alter-ego Margaret telling her to slow down and be sensible.  She gets some good roles in a repertory company, but cannot find work in London.  If not for her flamboyant friend, Tanya, a more talented actress, she feels she would have gone crazy. But the two argue and split up when pregnant Maggie decides to marry the man who date-raped her and emigrate to Africa.

Being a woman seems to be all about splitting selves. Reid writes about the split between career and motherhood, the split between living in Britain and Africa.  The section in Africa reminds me of Doris Lessing’s A Proper Marriage–what happens when you live in a provincial town and you fail as a mother, or feel that you fail?  After her husband leaves her, Maggie and her son Matt return to London, where Maggie makes some difficult decisions about careers and motherhoos, some of which she regrets. 

As Maggie’s mother says to her, “You know, Maggie, the vainest and most futile mental exercise in the world is tracing back some accident or blunder to its origins, and letting one’s heart gnaw itself in regret that one didn’t know what was going to result….  One’s whole life can turn on some tiny thing.  It’s not fair.  there ought to be a bell, a warning bell, sounding at dangerous corners.  But there never, never is.”

So true–and we do love Maggie’s mother.

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