Monday, 6 June 2011

The Newspaper of Claremont Street by Elizabeth Jolley

Despite its title this book is not about a newspaper at all. The title refers to the central character, Marguerite Morris, although in her current life she is only known as ‘Newspaper’. This is because she cleans a large number of the houses in Claremont Street and makes it her business to know everyone else’s business and pass the gossip along. She spends many an hour sat in the local shop, although she rarely buys anything, instead using her intimate knowledge of the shopper’s homes to inform them of what they need to purchase. To say she is a thrifty woman would be understating the point slightly, as she lives on bread and boiled vegetables, saves every penny she can and dreams about her savings amassing as a mountain of coins

“They had no idea that Weekly’s bank account, besides filling several bank books, filled her mind every morning. It was a daily vision, and took the form of an exquisite cone shaped mountain made entirely of money, with a silver scree of coins on its steep sides. Every morning she pictured this shining heap, gilded on the rosetinted sky of the dawn, before getting up”

I felt a strange sort of sympathy for Weekly. There are times she is manipulative and devious, getting as much a she can out of her employers, for example charging them bus fares, when she only really lives at the end of the street. Yet the majority of what she receives from the people she cleans for they give her out of a desire not to appear mean or stingy to their neighbours, not from any real affection for Weekly. I don’t know if I’d call this satire, but I did feel it was mildly poking fun at the ‘keeping up with the Jones’’ attitude that develops around Weekly. Through this attitude Weekly manages to secure a free car,

“of course, they had given the car to Weekly for how could they, the Kingston’s, though they always felt short of money, take her money away from her when they already had two other cars and two properties and a boat.”

And then, in the spirit of reputation

“The Chatham’s had paid for her driving lessons as it was unthinkable for them not to do something when it was known that the Kingston’s had given the car to Weekly. That week she was heaped with presents of all sorts”

All progresses along these lines, with Weekly continuing her work and thriftiness until one of the residents of the street asks for her help, and ends up being more than a match for Weekly in the manipulative stakes, which leaves Weekly’s busy yet ordinary life in disarray, and threatens to ruin her plans for a peaceful future.

The story of Weekly as a cleaner is interspersed with her memories of her past, specifically her relationships with her mother and brother, Victor. She has a relatively poor childhood, with little to call her own, and in this context it becomes easy to understand why she is so obsessed with saving her money to acquire the one thing she desires more than anything else for herself. The memories themselves are revealed in a very piecemeal fashion, particularly those connected to her brother, who she had a difficult relationship with, and was used by, but whom she loved very much. It is clear that she feels guilt at something she did to him, but what this actually is is not revealed until the conclusion of the story, and it is this tension that turns what seems like a very pedestrian story into something more interesting.

Although the story made me smile in places, and Weekly, despite her faults, was for the most part a likeable character, it also had some dark moments and on one or two occasions, Weekly showed an incredibly dark and cruel side of herself. Once with some cats, and again close to the end, in an incident involving rubber boots, mud and a pear tree. It was an incident that made me re-think the whole book, but somehow it didn’t change my opinion of Weekly, possibly because by that point her life has been revealed, so it is easy to see how and why she wants what she gets, and why she will go to almost any means to get it.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a quick read, yet it was never quite what it seemed. Events were always making me reconsider what I thought about Weekly, and each time I thought I’d got her figured out, she did something else, be it kind or not, to make me change my opinion.