AN EASTER EGG HUNT (1981) by Gillian Freeman

Freeman_Easter-Egg_pavanneThis three-part novel begins in 1915, when a girl goes missing from a country finishing school while on an Easter treasure hunt. This is presented in the form of a true-crime story published two years later, with the names changed to protect the innocent. The second section, dated 11 years later, and also submitted for publication, but rejected, is by the same (anonymous) author, providing a much fuller background and makes up the bulk of the book, setting up a tragic finish.

I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, which today is being hosted by Evan Lewis at his Davy Crockett’s Almanack.

“You can trust me,” she whispered fervently. “I will never betray you. I swear, I will never tell a soul.”

The widow Madame Pennington, originally from France, has set up a school for girls in the country and finds that she is even more in demand once the Great War breaks out. In 1915 she is joined by Madeleine, her sister’s 17-tear-old daughter, sent over to escape from the conflict. She helps out at the school and becomes the object of adoration and fascination for her fellow pupils, cadets at the nearby military academy and even the local doctor (with whom Madame is besotted). In the second part of the narrative, dated from 1926, the author (who carefully masks their identity through a third person narration) fills in many of the blanks relating to Madeleine’s time at the school and her ultimate disappearance, but tantalising ends before we discover what happened to her. The final section is from 1939 when the school has been requisitioned to support mobilisation in the Second World War. The author ultimately finds a long-hidden diary and gives us the full explanation of why the girl vanished – and what became of her, and the others, at the school.

“Mrs Pennington has introduced the game of hockey. It will interfere with child-bearing. Mark my words.”

Freeman_Easter-Egg_lythwayFreeman does a great job here of evoking the atmosphere of rigid but not stifling conformity within the school and the small village that surrounds it. The book provides a stead accumulation of often bizarre rituals, drawn lightly but with great prevision, depicting tiny details of life in the teens, from the deportment of the girls when going to church and Madame’s secret feelings about chocolate, to the terrifying cleaning strategies of the staff. Ultimately she provides an engrossing depiction of a time long gone by as told by a narrator who only gets nearer to the truth the further they get from the events themselves, ultimately spanning almost a quarter of a century in the process. It is very convincing in portraying a time when superstition (especially a belief in ghosts and spiritualism) went hand-in-hand with new technology such as the aircraft in which Madeleine’s beau trains to fight int he war and the portable camera with which she is photographed shortly before vanishing. One of the best scenes in fact combines the two, with a group of girls attempting to hold a séance, which involves a bible, in the room used to develop photographs, thus combining religion, the supernatural and science all in one go – no wonder one of the girls gets terrified and breaks down!

This is a short novel but at 150 pages seems just about right, its precise prose often reminding me of a cross between Muriel Spark and Anita Brookner to produce a multilayered story that is ultimately very sad but always riveting, even if ultimately the truth seems not to set anybody free. It did remind me a bit of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, which is also set a private girls’ school at the beginning of the century during a public holiday (in this case St Valentine’s Day) and deals with a mysterious disappearance; but then a girls’ school is hardly uncharted fictional territory and Freeman deserves a lot of credit for handling it with such conviction and cool precision, nicely capturing the change in the narration as the decades pass.

The mighty John F.Norris reviewed this book over at his blog, Pretty Sinister Books, which is why I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘reviewed by another challenger’ category:

vintage-silver-challenger

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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34 Responses to AN EASTER EGG HUNT (1981) by Gillian Freeman

  1. Lovely review as ever, Sergio! And an interesting approach both to storytelling and to depicting the era. Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Santosh Iyer says:

    The book is too sad for my liking.

  3. realthog says:

    Oh, I remember reading this back in the day. A great review, and thanks very much for the reminder.

    Thanks, too, for the tip as to how to alter my WordPress subscriptions. As you can see, I was able to manage it. But WordPress did not make this easy. The first couple of times I clicked the appropriate button I got taken to a different page entirely. I get the impression they’re so keen to tinker with the interface that they tend quite often to foul up the basics.

  4. Colin says:

    I do like the sound of the book’s structure, though I’m not sure it would be my thing overall. Possibly because of my job, I tend to shy away from school-set books – too much like homework sometimes!

  5. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    Like the sound of this *a lot* – and I’ve never heard of it so thanks for the heads-up! 🙂

  6. I read this back in the 1980s – I think a magazine gave it away free, they had a little period of doing that – and I think was expecting something much lighter, with that title and the school setting, and was slightly disappointed. But I re-read it a few years ago, and liked it very much, for many of the reasons you mention – now I’m older I’m better with sadder stories! I then looked for another book by her – His Mistress’s Voice – about a Jewish family in Victorian London. Completely different, but I really liked that one too.

    • Thanks Moira – I think i got an Anne Tyler like that once (either with Cosmo or Vogue – a friend’s a I hasten to add 🙂 ) It is a very sad tale, no question about it! Mind, from a fashion standpoint …

  7. Like Moira, I read this back in the Eighties. I don’t mind reading sad stories if they’re well done like this one is. Nice review!

  8. John says:

    Glad you enjoyed this one. The analogy to Muriel Spark is spot on. Thanks for including the link to my essay on this book, too. I’m all for hyperbole in language but I draw the line at calling myself “mighty” and so would the three physical therapists I saw last summer. :^)

    • I was going to go with titanic but somehow it just made me think of Kate Winslet in the buff 🙂

      • Todd Mason says:

        Which is always something to be glad of thinking of (if perhaps a bit confusing if overlaid on John…and now I’m juxtaposing laid with Winslet, and just saddening myself). I’m only sorry I missed John’s review so far, and shall go look…you two have certainly hooked me with tracing the kinship to Spark’s work.

        Meanwhile, Sergio, don’t miss this on Ed Gorman’s blog:
        http://newimprovedgorman.blogspot.com/2014/11/my-first-novel-bill-pronzini.html

        • John has to get off la Winslet, she’s all mine – he can have Leo though! Thanks very much for that link Todd – lovely piece – I wish all books had a biographical piece by the authors half as fun as that one!

          • Todd Mason says:

            I’m afraid there’s quite a line for Winslet in fannish fantasy, Sergio…probably not too much a shorter one for DiCaprio (but I might just get into the Sela Ward or Rachel Weisz [among too many others! Angela Bassett…Michelle Yeoh…Irene Bedard…] lines instead just ahead of the Winslet). And, as Robert Randisi notes, a full memoir from Pronzini (or even a joint one with Marcia Muller) is a necessity we should militate for.

          • A Pronzini memoir would be fantastic Todd – buy that one in a shot (sic) – no idea who Sela Ward is by Bassett is fanb and a terrific thespian – loved her in action mode in STRANGE DAYS rescuing passive ‘hero’ Ralph Fiennes

          • Todd Mason says:

            Sela Ward has had her best role in the US television series ONCE AND AGAIN, and good ones in the likes of THE FUGITIVE film and less well-known flicks. She did what she could (considerable) with the female lead in the misguided remake of THE STEPFATHER. Rather comparable with Bassett in most ways, and not a little like Weisz’s older sister in most ways, albeit born in Louisiana rather than somewhere in the sceptered isle.

          • OK, Google to the rescue – I know ehere you are coming from and I wholeheartedly concur my friend – she’s great in her cameo in GONE GIRL actually

          • Todd Mason says:

            Circumstances have been interfering with my catching the film so far, but I mean to…I think I’d head she was in it. Quite fine in her season in HOUSE, as well. (And shame on me…I relocate above her origins from Mississippi to Louisiana…

          • I remember her well from House (though I stopped watching after the fourth season when it switched to a pay channel I don’t get).

  9. tracybham says:

    I don’t know that I would like such a sad story, but you make it sound so interesting and it is on the short side. So I may try it.

  10. Well-reviewed, Sergio, though I don’t think I’m up to reading this novel. However, the school and village setting and atmosphere, as described by you, sound interesting. Thanks for highlighting Gillian Freeman.

    • Thanks Prashant – she is a very unusual writer (I think still around though she hasn’t published anything in a while), producing many different sorts of books, and screenplays, on often unusual and difficult subjects. You can check out her Wikipedia page here.

  11. camden_kid says:

    Looks really interesting. I’ll add it to my list. Thanks.

  12. Bev Hankins says:

    Sounds like a good one. I love this quote: “Mrs Pennington has introduced the game of hockey. It will interfere with child-bearing. Mark my words.” Playing sports…the doom of the human race. 🙂

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