I found 'Tin Toys' whilst browsing in my much missed old branch of Waterstones, (closed for 2 weeks nowand I can't bring myself to walk past it - which is inconvenient as it's basically on my way home) picked it up for the Virago apple on the spine and bought it on the strength of the Molly Keane quote on the cover. Molly Keane thought it "extraordinarily good in its penetration into a child's happiness and unhappiness" I think she was likely referring to a single part of the trilogy, but it's an accurate description of all 3 books.
'Tin Toys' is the first of the trilogy followed by 'Unicorn Sisters', and 'A Bubble Garden', they originally came out through the 1980's. As a single volume this only just tips over 400 pages so it makes sense to publish and read them all together but, and I've found this before reading trilogy's in this way, it does feel like you've spent a long time with the characters - I sometimes wonder if reading over a week what took the author almost five years to work out in stages is quite the best way to approach a set of books.
The action follows three young sisters and is told from a child's point of view - but these are by no means children's books; there is a lot of death and sex, and the sex is inevitably quite disturbing given that it's being witnessed by children. Set just before, during, and just after the war each book is told from the point of view of a different sister, first up is Ula, the youngest at 7 years, she has 2 older sisters; Bonnie and Tor who inhabit have graduated from nursery to schoolroom, they are entirely self sufficient with each other and their elderly governess for company. Ula's place as baby of the family has been upset by the death of her father and the arrival of a baby brother, but the family disruptions haven't stopped there. The children's mother has left them behind in the country and escaped to London, the household consists of a distant relation who acts as a nanny the the baby and Ula, Maggie the Irish kitchen maid, and the older girls governess who doesn't live in.
For Ula it's a lonely existence as only Maggie has time for her and more tragedy isn't far behind. Baby Bruno falls ill and dies fragmenting the family even further. Ula is sent with Maggie back to Ireland but finds herself in a nightmarish slum world, unwelcome and unable to understand the currents of emotion surrounding her. Miraculously it seems like she's going to be rescued and then tragedy strikes again. 'Tin Toys' is narrated by an older Ula recalling the events, right at the end she speculates that some of it might be exaggeration - it seems feasible that it would be and is perhaps the most unsettling thing about a very unsettling book.
'Unicorn Sisters' is told from Bonnie's point of view and makes it clear that Ula's recollections are more or less accurate. In an effort to be rid of responsibilities that she never wanted the girl's mother has sent them to a boarding school. She's so anxious to be rid of them that they find themselves abandoned without any clear idea of where she will be, they're not kitted out properly, and are generally ill equipped in every way for the life ahead of them. The school is a shambles, more so when it's invaded by a group of evacuees who bring a disturbing element of adult sexuality with them.
In 'A Bubble Garden' the sisters are back in Ireland, now with another brother - 7 year old Boris, they are reaching adulthood but there is a clear sense that more tragedy is inevitable - and it comes. These books are dark but brilliant. As Keane says Holden is tremendously good at getting to grips with children's unhappiness, and how they can also be happy in the most unpromising circumstances. She also creates a monstrous mother in 'Babs' who is part of a fine tradition of terrible mothers - Molly Keane rather specialises in them and Noel Streatfeild does a fine example in 'Saplings' as does Marghanita Laski in 'To Bed With Grand Music'. Holden has a certain amount of empathy for Babs who never really wanted children, and is so utterly selfish she should obviously never have had them. The empathy comes with an acknowledgement that Babs' husbands have wanted children and that she's expected to provide them.
There are enough examples of mothers more interested in sex than children in twentieth century fiction to make me believe they must have been a recognisable type which I think raises some interesting questions. They aren't kindly treated in the fiction I've read, Holden writing in the 1980's about the 1940's is as close as I've seen to any point of sympathy - she makes the point that children can be irksome, dull, often unlovable, and once you've married it's rather expected that you have them.
Lisa Allardice's introduction says that Holden is delighted that her books are back in print, I'm delighted to have discovered her. This is an often disturbing read but it's also brilliant.