This novel annoyed me so much, for its ignorance, or wilful avoidance, of historical accuracy and plausibility. But, if it isn’t historical fiction, then it’s a deeply uncomfortable read because of its implausibility: we are reading about the systematised prostitution of children in a fantasical story about physical damage in a brutalised society. Some reviewers found it funny, and praised its dark satire. Were they reading a different novel?
I’ll start with the anachronisms. The setting is 1923, yet the characters routinely use modern vocabulary and slang, my pet loathe. No working-class woman of 1923 would have said, while defending her grandson’s shoplifting: ‘totally unacceptable’. Brooks, or his editor, hasn’t checked the fashions of 1923, because in a brief but important event a girl’s skirt whirls up round her waist as she is spun around in a dance, twice. 1920s frocks didn’t use enough fabric to splay round; a straight up-and-down, androgynous silhouette was the whole point of early 1920s fashion. Brooks was probably thinking of the 1940s here. One character makes a joke about ‘space aliens’: the OED says that ‘aliens’ in the SF sense was not used until 1929, and was an Americanism. US science fictions magazines were a minority cult interest in the UK, and were certainly not in wide circulation in 1923 or earlier. A girl thinks to herself that she ought to have masturbated more: masturbation itself is as old as sex, but the word (only used in medical journals until its popularisation by Freud and sexologists), could not have been printed in newspapers and magazines (the only place this character could have read it, or learned its meaning) until the 1960s due to the obscenity laws. Brooks is putting words into that character’s mind that she could never have known: that is so annoying, and destroys all the suspension of disbelief that a historical novel needs. It didn’t take me long to check any of these points, so why weren’t they checked by the editor, or even the author?
Much of the imagery and character depictions is based on characters from The Wizard of Oz, an American novel first published in 1903, with which the children in the novel are familiar. The British Library has one UK edition of the novel predating 1923, from 1906. The English children are from poor backgrounds, with little education, so are very unlikely to have read this book: it is very unlikely to have been commonly known in their cultural background. The film (which is where the imagery in the novel really comes from) wasn’t made in 1939, and I don’t think there was, say, a silent version from before 1923 that the characters could have seen. Again, no-one seems to have checked. So I have to conclude that The Clocks in This House All Tell Different Times is not a historical novel at all — since it’s so badly done — but a historicised fantasy with random modern elements.
If it’s a fantasy, I question why Brooks felt it necessary to write so much about the sustained prostitution of teenage girls (I won’t even begin on the cocaine use in the stately home since that is really out of my knowledge, but it never reads plausibly). Brooks presents us with 14 year old village girls being prostituted to war-damaged servicemen, who are apparently unable to find women for their sexual needs (Brooks doesn’t say anything about the girls’ needs) in any other way. Again, I seriously doubt this scenario in the historical sense, given that the girls’ families are being paid: adult prostitutes were certainly available, so why do we need to read about children being used? If it’s a fantasy, then the sex is also a fantasy: there is no feeling, no awareness of the physicality of repeated sex, the dribbling, the bruising and chafing, and the social guilt, the cultural taboos are ignored, as if they don’t matter or don’t exist. Likewise with the extended description of the airman burning to death in his crashing plane: thankfully we don’t have to read about his excruciating pain, but then why are we reading about his ordeal at all? What purpose is there in creating situations of endurance and suffering without what causes the suffering? There is a peculiar smothering or blanking out of feeling and emotion, of reality, throughout this novel and that enrages me, because without feeling these characters are dolls existing in a monotony: why are we reading this at all? It’s a parade of horrors, and fizzles out with a house fire, and the utterly fantastical disappearance of the leading man after a fuzzy kind of redemption that ignores anything that the leading woman (after so much rape she’s no longer a child) might need to have redeemed herself.
I hated it. I’m clearly missing this novel’s praiseworthy elements, for it has been lauded to the skies. I bought it for book group reading, and will have to much to say about it when the meeting comes around. I hope I can find out what I’m missing.