The Servants’ Quarters by Lynn Freed

There are no new stories under the sun, only creative reworkings of a few plotlines: love, loss, revenge, redemption. That’s four. The fifth may be classified as variations on Victoriana, in this case, Jane Eyre.

Nine-year-old Cressida lives with her flirtatious mother, Muriel, dull sister, Miranda, and comatose father, Malcolm, in an unnamed South African locale. World War II has recently ended, and life is slowly returning to “normal”. But Cressida’s family is suffering economically, coming to depend on the largesse of George Harding, a disfigured war pilot who inhabits the nearby estate of Harding’s Rest with his batty mother and nephew Edgar. It was Harding’s brother, Charles, who unwittingly caused Malcolm’s coma after bashing him in the skull with a golf club. The men were fighting over Muriel, who had a flirtation with Charles. Charles thoughtlessly tomcatted with countless women, but after mortally injuring his onetime friend, he enlists in the service, conveniently getting himself killed in wartime. Brother George is left, as they say in hockey parlance, to pick up the garbage.

After moving the family into his refitted servant’s quarters, George engages the high-spirited Cressida as a companion for Edgar, who is shy and slow-witted. To this end, he gives Cressida gifts, money, and time in his study, having the sorts of charged discussions Rochester forced upon the unwilling Jane Eyre.

Cressida, whose high-jinks infuriate her mother and leave Edgar with broken bones, hates the entire business. She hates the servant’s quarters, Edgar’s mulish stupidity, and George’s — known always to her as Mr. Harding — keen attentions. What are her dreams? Her wishes for life? What does she think of this record, or that book? Harding’s intense interest is puzzling, even a little unsettling, given Cressida’s age.

Also unsettling are the ascending levels of prejudice. Cressida’s family is Jewish, permitted entry into the country club due to Charles Harding’s efforts. Both the Hardings and Cressida’s family rely on Zulus to do their housework, particularly Phineas, who moves between homes as Malcolm’s caregiver, cook, driver, and general man of all work. When Malcolm dies, Muriel marries the odious Mr. Ledson, an Englishman who makes no secret of his anti-Semitism. After a disastrous holiday at Giant’s Peak resort, the now teenaged Cressida moves to Harding’s rest full time, where she acts as Mrs. Harding’s companion.

Beautiful, sexually aware, Cressida enjoys teasing men, even when the results are unwanted. When the hopeless Edgar returns from boarding school to be privately tutored by one Andrew “Jock” Campbell. Cressida toys with Campbell until he falls hopelessly in love, then rears back in disgust. The same cannot be said about Mr. Harding; Cressida, at 17, is deeply in love with him. Theirs is relationship of charged conversations over coffee and port, parrying, questioning, and dealing with Harding’s touchy temper. A series of surgeries has rendered Harding marginally less hideous, though Cressida no longer cares. The rebellious girl subsides into an adoring wife, even as Harding’s health fails.

The Servant’s Quarters is clearly the work of a seasoned writer, elegantly written, compact, flowing. Yet it is utterly predictable — Brontë combined with Beauty and the Beast, leavened with Cinderella’s witless, nasty relatives. The lingering effects of the Holocaust and South Africa’s racial inequities lift the story from banality, but the book still suffers. Is it worth reading? For lovers of what we might conveniently label “the Jane Eyre genre”, yes. For an evening’s entertainment, certainly. For deeper insights in postwar suffering, South Africa’s difficult history, or even romantic love, well, no.

RATING 6 / 10