Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Review: The Sugar House, by Antonia White


Pages: 255
Original date of publication: 1952
My copy: 1989 (Virago)
Why I decided to read:
How I acquired my copy: Philly Book Trader, January 2013

The Sugar House is the second novel in a trilogy of books that began with The Lost Traveller. Clara Batchelor is now twenty-one; having graduated from drama school, she’s now a member of a traveling acting group. She has a love affair with another actor (although we can tell that it won’t end well) and ends up marrying her former fiancĂ©e Archie. Although newlywed, Clara—and Archie—still have a lot to learn about life; and for better or worse, the second half of the novel is how they try to cope with the demands of marriage and, at the same time, grow up.

Antonia White has laid on the symbolism and imagery pretty thickly; the title is in reference to the Hansel and Gretel story. The similarities are so close that you might think that White is retelling the old myth, with the house made of confectionery representing the house in Chelsea, and the trail of breadcrumbs and witch representing Clara and Archie’s marriage. Because of this, the book seems kind of claustrophobic; indeed, most of the scenes in this book take place indoors. It’s a clever analogy, but it’s not so skillfully done in that Antonia White actually has to tell her reader what the title means in the text of the novel. Still, I enjoyed reading the continuation of Clara’s story; and it’s interesting to watch how she matures from childhood to adulthood in this book.

The Catholicism of White’s earlier novels is less obvious in this novel, but still present. Antonia White was very strongly influenced by her religious upbringing, and so it shows clearly in her series of novels that were based on her personal history from the ages of 9 to 23. The Sugar House fictionally details White’s marriage to Tom Hopkinson as well as White’s attempts to be both a writer of fiction and work as an advertising copywriter. You don’t need to have read The Lost Traveller or Frost in May (which is also unofficially a part of the series) previously, but it helps. Given what happened to Antonia White in real life, it’ll be interesting to see how the story unfolds in the last book Beyond the Glass.

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