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God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam: Looking for Order in a Child's Universe

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God on the Rocks by Jane Gardam was nominated for the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1978 and has just been issued here in the United States by Europa Editions. Gardam's popularity in the United States is late-coming but wildly booming, with singularly devoted readers and curious book groupers alike taking up her books, starting with Old Filth, her novel about Sir Edward Feathers, a retired lawyer coming to terms with his past, and continuing on with the follow-up novel The Man in the Wooden Hat, which further illustrates the story of Eddy, but this time from his wife's perspective. God on the Rocks is sure to bring Gardam a further swelling of deserved and devoted readers, as it is another thoroughly unique and yet very English exploration of internal and personal desires coming up against external demands and societal expectations.

God on the Rocks tells the tale of Margaret, a perceptive, intrepid, and contained eight-year old girl, and the particular universe of characters and events which revolve, faster and faster, around her. At first glance her world appears stable and serene, the only ripple of discontent being the newly born brother for whom Margaret bears no love or interest. Sent off on a weekly treat of an expedition with the housemaid, Margaret begins to uncover layers to her universe, tiers of understandings and misunderstandings, thwarted dreams and unfulfilled desires. No one person is quite as they seem, and no one place is as secure in foundation or future as Margaret might hope. Even the sea itself, both as the background landscape of Margaret's world and as a character in the novel, is changeable and unpredictable, offering sanctuary and respite as often as it releases the dangers of desire, pride, fear, and death.

Margaret exhibits perceptions well beyond her eight years but I suspended my disbelief as to her precocious abilities, falling completely for the acuity of her wry observations, innocent questions, and honest conclusions. The relationships between the characters all begin to make sense as the story unfolds, and the final drama allows a full maturation not only of Margaret but of each of her parents, and of the other adults and even children of Margaret's world. We understand by the end of the novel who are the ones of little backbone and who are the survivors, and although the conclusions do not surprise us upon reflection, they do make us debate the nature of human beings: are we capable of defining what we want and then going for it? Or are we always to be circumscribed by class, education, opportunity, personality, and innate ability? We define our own order in the universe -- rules for behavior that will get us what we want or deny us what we desire -- and proceed from there, searching for fulfillment through faith, art, love, or simply in finding a kindred soul.

Gardam is a unique and wonderful writer, mixing no-nonsense presentations of heartbreak, despair, and uncertainty, with equally dry but hilarious bouts of humor, desire, love, friendship, and even happiness, fleeting as that might be.