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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

God on the Rocks

Jane Gardam

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To purchase God on the Rocks

Title: God on the Rocks
Author: Jane Gardam
Genre: Novel
Written: 1978
Length: 195 pages
Availability: God on the Rocks - US
God on the Rocks - UK
God on the Rocks - Canada
Dieu par-dessus bord - France
  • God on the Rocks was made into a TV film in 1990, directed by Ross Cramer, with Bill Paterson as Mr. Marsh and Minnie Driver as Lydia

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Our Assessment:

A- : very nicely done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. A 31/10/2010 Nancy Kline
Sunday Times . 8/10/1978 Peter Ackroyd
TLS . 13/10/1978 Jane Miller

  From the Reviews:
  • "God on the Rocks is so charming a novel that you don't want to give away a single one of the many twists of its plot. (...) We are in the hands of a master story-teller. Over the course of the novel, Gardam gives us the past and present of her characters' lives, zooming in and out of their diverse perspectives, moving from Margaret's uncorrupted eyes to the more freighted vision of the grown-ups around her" - Nancy Kline, The New York Times Book Review

  • "God on the Rocks is rescued by Jane Gardam's evocation of certain oblique and mysterious states of consciousness -- whether those of childhood, madness or extreme old age. Her faithfulness to the palpable texture of life charges her writing with an intense, exact energy." - Peter Ackroyd, Sunday Times

  • "The author's treatment of Margaret exactly parallels the way the adults in the novel shut the child out, disregard her need to know, while appearing to want her to flourish. (...) Jane Gardam has a spectacular gift for detail, of the local and period kind, and for details which make characters so subtly unpredictable that they ring true, and her humour is tough as well as delicate." - Jane Miller, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       When God on the Rocks opens, in a summer between the world wars, there are two relative newcomers in the Marsh household, the infant Terence and the household help Lydia. Mr. Marsh -- Kenneth -- is a bank manager, and a devout Christian, a dedicated member of a local sect, the 'Primal Saints'. He and wife Elinor also have an eight-year-old daughter, Margaret, and much of the novel, especially at first, centers around her.
       Margaret has been steeped in religion -- she knows the whole Bible "backwards and inside out", readily quoting from it -- though she hasn't quite gotten in the spirit of things. So, for example she argues with her mother that the world could do quite well without humanity:

     'It would be better off without people.'
     'There would be no love, darling, without people. God made us so that there might be love. Er -- one John four -- er -- twelve, isn't it ? No -- John one fourteen -- but ...'
     'Why bother ? The world was all right before, it seems to me. If we didn't exist we weren't missing things. Ice and fire and snow and glaciers and then plants. It would have been enough you'd think. Well perhaps dinosaurs. If I'd been God I'd have left it at dinosaurs. I'd have been satisfied looking down at all that.'
       She can relate it to her own situation, too, arguing: "God and the world would have done. Like me before the baby came."
       As a treat, Margaret is now to be allowed a weekly outing, just her and the new help, anywhere they liked. Mrs. Marsh is not thrilled about their having taken on Lydia -- "Lydia's a whore. You can see she's a whore. She's from nowhere. We are mad" -- but Mr. Marsh thinks she was sent to them for a purpose, and that they will be able to show her the light and the way and save her: "She is in God's path", Mr. Marsh insists. Lydia may be common and raw, but she acts with a sense of determination and speaks her mind -- in a strong dialect at that. She also rather enjoys the pleasures of the flesh, and her weekly outings with Margaret give her an opportunity to indulge in them, while Margaret is left to wander off on her own.
       One of the places Margaret roams to in seaside Eastkirk, the nearby town they visit each Wednesday, is Seaview Villas, an estate that the now old and infirm Rosalie Frayling has turned into a charitable institution; among the patients there is the quite mad painter, Edwin Drinkwater. Rosalie Frayling was the mother of Charles and Binkie, with whom Elinor Marsh had grown up, spending much of her time in the Fraylings' house, even though she wasn't of the same class-background as them. If not quite newcomers, Charles and Binkie have now also returned to the fold (if not their mother's home), after many years away -- and Elinor goes, with Margaret, to visit them. The return of the two siblings, quiet though it is, is yet another change that contributes to upsetting an order that had held up reasonably well for over a decade -- but now gets shaken to its various foundations.
       More of the past is revealed: Charles and Elinor had been very close, and Charles had even proposed to her, years earlier, but his mother had not permitted the marriage -- leaving Elinor to marry Mr. Marsh instead. The class difference was too great -- with both Charles and Binkie having gone to Cambridge, for example, while Elinor worked at the local post office -- though the younger Fraylings hadn't really made much of their lives since, with Charles now teaching English literature at a local school (where he was considered: "rather a joke, with his stately ways and his old world accent -- and still under forty").
       Between these characters, Gardam artfully weaves her story. For all her raw manner and gruff ways, Lydia admires and envies the Marshs, with their: "marriage as quiet and grand as in the Woman's Weekly", and sees some glimmers of hope for herself, that maybe Mr. Marsh can save her. Mr. Marsh is mostly blinded by his religion, but his faith in God's ways also makes him surprisingly free and permissive in some ways, allowing Margaret more freedoms than, for example, his wife approves of. For all his religious conviction, however, Lydia also proves to be a temptation -- not that she would stand for that. Seeing Charles (and Binkie) again brings forth mixed feelings in Elinor, and events then move her to more drastic action -- leading also Charles to recall and consider the past (and present). And old lady Frayling worries about her valuable Renoir .....
       Eight-year-old Margaret is confronted with a strange world which she can only partially decode -- but this also only reflects the adults' own confusions. Her mother is well-meaning, but can't quite connect with her daughter; other characters, such as Drinkwater, are downright mad. Misunderstandings and an inability to convey things come up across the board. And even Mr. Marsh, the one person who seems so sure of his path, is pulled off it.
       A final chapter jumps twelve years on, after the end of the Second World War, rounding out the story and filling in a few blanks. Margaret is now studying History at university, with Binkie observing: "For a child of twenty you are ancient at times" -- but then she was already that at eight, too. It's also Binkie who wisely sums up;
(T)here's a lot it's wise not to fuss over. To prise out. Extract. It is best just to look and be.
       It's a neat little story, with an impressive depth to so many of the characters; like Margaret, almost all of them find themselves, repeatedly, unsure, very nicely conveyed by Gardam. There's some fine comedy here too, and it's all beautifully realized in Gardam's seemingly so casual style.
       For a short and in many ways seemingly light novel, there's a great deal to it. God on the Rocks meanders easily along, skipping about, and yet forms such a strong whole. It's hard to convey the full force of the novel, in its pieces and as a whole (especially without giving too much away), but is a very fine piece of work, and a great pleasure to read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 October 2021

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God on the Rocks: Reviews: God on the Rocks - the TV film: Jane Gardam: Other books by Jane Gardam under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       British author Jane Gardam was born in 1928.

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© 2021-2023 the complete review

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