I found myself in a fantastic independent bookshop a couple of weeks ago – one of those quirky old places full to the rafters with an array of beautiful titles, displayed in a hotchpotch of authors and genres. Squeezing past groaning stools and book-strewn chairs I discovered a small pile of Slightly Foxed Paperbacks in the corner of the room. I couldn’t resist the thick cream cover or the press’s brilliant name; eventually I settled on A House in Flanders.
It turned out to be one of those occasions when a book couldn’t have appeared at a better time. After the political division and bitterness of the past few weeks and months, I needed something gentle, and kind – a dose of nobility. Michael Jenkins’ account of his time in France was the perfect antidote to a bellyful of Trump and Farage.
Over the course of several summers during the 1950s, the young Michael was sent to spend his holiday with a houseful of French “aunts” in Flanders. They weren’t really relations of his, but, as becomes clear during the course of the narrative, the introspective English boy was bound to the family by a bitter-sweet history. The sprawling French home reveals a riot of colour, familial love and shared secrets which prove to be a world away from his repressed English parents and boarding school, and he soon finds himself fulfilling the role of a go-between – not to enable a doomed affair as in L.P Hartley’s classic, but instead to offer a much-needed ear for the village, in the way outsiders often can.
Each chapter tells the story of a different relation or neighbour, their history, and role in the house. Tante Yvonne is the wise, childless matriarch who dedicated her life to keeping her family united under one roof. Gentle Tante Lise has control of the garden, Tante Florence oscillates between placidity and bursts of activity, Tante Alice jealously manages her property and Oncle Auguste is the former soldier occasionally beset by episodes of dementia. Apart from the exquisite cousin Madeline who inspires Michael’s first experience of love, the members of the household are octogenarians – at the end of their lives just as Michael is beginning his. One of the many special things about the book is the fact that the generational divide isn’t any sort of barrier to Michael being absorbed into their lives – their age gives the tantes a wealth of stories to tell but it doesn’t feel foreign to Michael. They become his world.
There is a sort of Edenic quality to Michael’s golden summers in the village – he wanders through golden fields on his various errands, absorbing the glorious countryside around him and learning its folklore. The memory of the world wars is never far from the surface, though, making itself known through the aunts’ stories; the confusion inspired by the few German characters to pass through the book; and the private sorrows and divisions which still haunt the village. Michael’s boyish thoughtfulness and lack of judgment integrate these flashes of brutality into the otherwise dreamlike narrative, so that the recent violence is somehow managed by his innocence. Death, loss, love, permanence and hope – they all have a place at the table here, managing to exist in harmony within the beautiful story.
At the core of the book is Tante Yvonne’s desire for the villagers to rub along with one another and for her family to stay close to home. Looking at her through Michael’s eyes you feel all of her strength and humour, as well as glimpses of the hardships she’s endured. Yvonne may have lived through war, lost loved ones and suffered the cruelty of being forced out of her home by invading soldiers, but there isn’t a trace of bitterness here – all Michael sees is courage, wisdom and an enduring faith in her neighbours. She’s both a peace-maker and champion of justice, steadfastly refusing to be beaten by war, grief or the passing of time.
What more of an inspiration could one want as this ruthless year draws to a close.