Harriet said: "No you don't, you keep walking." I wanted to turn around and look back at the dark house but she tugged at my arm fiercely. We walked over the field hand in hand as if we were little girls.
I didn't know what the time was, how late we might be. I only knew that this once it didn't really matter. Before we reached the road Harriet stopped. I could feel her breath on my face, and over her shoulder I could see the street lamps shining and the little houses all sleeping. She brought her hand up and I thought she was going to hit me but she only touched my cheek with her fingers. She said, "Don't cry now." (opening of the novel)
I found this little Penguin paperback, of only 152 pages, while I was attending the Classical Pursuits program in Toronto. It was on one of the hall tables bearing a sign, "Take One, Leave One," thereby encouraging readers to share their books. Because it was thin, because I was curious about two teenage girls who seem to be spying on someone's house, I took it home.
A bold and bossy Harriet has a loyal follower in her friend, of whose name we're never sure as the story is told in first person through her eyes. We only see that this friend is stout, clumsy, and so enraptured by Harriet, and what she says, that she follows Harriet's every plan.
This summer, Harriet has decided that they will "humble the Tsar", a meek and married man with whom our narrator becomes purposefully involved. They are two thirteen year old girls, who have little idea of the repercussions their behavior would have. The results of their game with the Tsar has disastrous results, and the reader is left wondering if perhaps youth is not so innocent after all.
The novel is written under an exquisite shroud of sorts, slowly revealing each facet of the plot such that one discovers this novel is actually a horror story. I found Beryl Bainbridge to resemble Daphne du Maurier, and even Shirley Jackson, by taking ordinary themes and making them dark and terrible. Some reviewers have called it an "evocation of childhood", but I would go so far as naming it what it is: wicked manipulation. It would make a perfect autumnal read.
"An extremely original and disconcerting story...Miss Bainbridge's imagination is dark...her landscapes reek and threaten, and her images smell of corruption." ~Daily Telegraph
"A sharp, chilling novel...The ending has real shock effect." ~Sunday Times
"Beryl Bainbridge's evocation of childhood is faultless." ~Evening Standard