Sunday, March 10, 2013

Breakfast With The Nikolides - Rumer Godden

My reading life generally follows a path - I'll pick up a book, and it will lead onto another, and then another,  until either it feels like I've come to the end of that particular road, or something comes along that I drop everything to read which heads me off on a new path. Occasionally though there will be a pile of books which all look so good that my reading doesn't fall into a pattern but jumps around all over the place. This is how it is at the moment and it's making me realise how much the last book I read influences how I think about the one I'm reading now. My understanding of Amy Sackville's 'Orkney' owed a lot to 'The Phantom of the Opera' and 'Breakfast With The Nikolides' was partly informed by my reaction to 'The Mussel Feast' (actually on reflection it seems that all unwittingly I've read a pile of books about unhappy domestic situations and controlling relationships this year). 

I've seen 'Breakfast With The Nikolides' referred to somewhere as a coming of age story but that's not at all how I saw it - to me it'a a book about rape. Really it's both these things and more, 'Breakfast With The Nikolides' is beautiful, perceptive, moving - essentially far to good a book to fit into one little box, but on this reading this is what I made of it...

The book opens with Emily Pool's dog escaping from the house and behaving quite erratically, before it skips back to reveal the Pool family. Charles Pool has been living alone in a Bengali back water for the last 8 years in a house that's beautiful and cared for but oddly damaged - everything has been broken at some point in the past. War has broken out in Europe and is driving his estranged wife back to him along with their two daughters - Emily and Binnie. This is not a happy family, Charles and Louise seem to hate one another and Emily's relationship with her mother is exceptionally strained. Charles doesn't know the name of his 8 year old daughter and Louise's reaction to the house she hasn't seen before is one of shocked familiarity.

India is hot and tense, there with a definite threat of violence in the air. Charles gives Emily a puppy, and it's his odd behaviour that triggers one set of events. Louise decides he's rabid and has him destroyed but tells Emily he dies in a fight with another dog whilst the children where having breakfast with the Nikolides family down the river. It's a breaking point in their already strained relationship with neither Louise or Emily capable of controlling themselves or the consequences of their actions. For Emily one part of childhood is over (so yes I guess it is a coming of age story).

Meanwhile Charles and Louise's past is slowly unravelled. Louise is a beauty but she's by no means a pleasant woman; towards the end of the book Charles tells her that she was not "reasonable, you did not want something - you wanted everything. You wanted to spend all your money and be rich, you wanted to have a child and have no worry and pain, you wanted to marry and not be married; and when it naturally didn't fall out like that you made an outcry and a moan. You wanted to be trusted and have the fun of being untrustworthy - and you did have fun, didn't you Louise? And you wanted me to be jealous - without being inconvenient." she knows, and we know it's true, her replies that he was bestial are clearly meant to lack much conviction, but Godden also makes it clear that the marriage breaks up after Charles rapes her one night.

On the one hand the reader is clearly meant to side with Charles; after 3 years of Louise's games he snaps, at some point in the encounter she submits to him - seemingly what she can't forgive about the night is that she responded to him: her revenge is to take their child and cut off all contact whilst refusing to divorce him, she keeps the (as a result) children from him whilst living in Paris where there have been lovers, and after it all she still wants him. Charles has spent the intervening years living like a monk in a re-creation of the house they shared believing himself to be as hateful as she told him he was, and yet still he wants her. I could just about have gone along with the possibility that this is Louise getting the passion she wants from her husband without having to admit to her desires but for Godden making it quite a violent rape. Charles starts by taking an axe from the wall and smashing everything in the house before dragging his wife to bed. The servants are banished, the baby screaming, the entire house desecrated - I don't believe this is a rape fantasy, which is a concept I understand but which makes me profoundly uncomfortable, it's retribution and that too is an uncomfortable idea.

On the other hand this revelation towards the end of the novel made me re-assess Louise and her actions; it's clear she hates India as much as her husband and daughters love it; her extreme reaction to the dog's suspected rabies is in part an attempt to find a reason to leave, Charles accuses Louise of smashing the house - of 'making' him do it and it's quite possible to believe that she engineered a crisis sufficient to smash up her marriage. It's another violent event that brings the couple back together, it's not a healthy relationship and neither party is blameless or without sympathy.

That's one part of a satisfyingly complex and nuanced exploration of family relationships - Louise and Emily would demand as much space again. I had thought 'Black Narcissus' would probably remain my favourite Godden but this is a real contender and generally the more I read her the more respect I have for her as a writer. 


  1. This has been on my TBR list for a while because I thought I hadn't read it, but the bit about the dog sounds familiar (what does that say about my priorities!). I think my favourite Godden is Kingfishers Catch Fire.

    1. I think I'll read that one next. What I really liked about this book was that it had such a lot going on. I got caught up in one strand, but there were a few in there all exploring different types of love, obsession, violence, and things I doubtless missed. She's brilliant when she's on form.

  2. Godden always pulls out a shock that's almost visceral, doesn't she? I haven't read this one, and I suspect that I won't, but I do have a couple of others to read. My favourite is the more young adult title The Greengage Summer. (I was really impressed by Kingfishers Catch Fire too.)

    1. The Greengage Summer is one of my favourites as well. I think this one is more than worth the time spent on reading it if a copy comes your way. She does know how to shock but she does it with such skill, There was a real sense of brooding menace all the way through this book that felt entirely appropriate for it's war time timing.