“It was Woman’s Hour who suggested I keep a diary. They said it was good for mental health, and I must say I did feel much less frazzled after writing everything down yesterday. The frustrations were all still there, but somehow smoothed out – as if by a really good steam iron.”
Mrs Narwhal is overwhelmed. Her husband, Hugh, is unkind and unhappy – working every hour at a job he hates to save the ancestral home he never wanted. Then there’s Hugh’s sister, Rose, who’s spurned her one true love, and ricochets from crisis to crisis; and not to mention two small boys to bring up safely in a house that could crumble around their ears at any moment…
When Hugh’s pride receives a fatal blow, and he walks out, Mrs Narwhal is plunged into a crisis of both heart and home. With help from Rose she sets out to save the house her husband couldn’t. But can she save her marriage? And does she really want Hugh back?
Funny, charming, and moving, Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is an irresistible story which will enchant and delight its readers.
I always romp really quickly through books that are in diary format. Then regret I didn’t take my time. I think it’s because they’re in short chronological chunks so the brain keeps thinking – ‘just one more can’t hurt’. It’s also something to do with the solitary narrator letting us inside their head and view their world from that perspective. We’re not confused by other perspectives and we can trust that this is their truth. We get to know them deeply, and I certainly loved getting to know Mrs Narwhal. Yes, I was initially attracted by the unlikely and eccentric sounding name. These are the faded upper classes, living in their crumbling mansions, and going about their business while the house falls down around their ears. People like this make up some of my favourite bookish characters. I think it comes from a childhood of reading I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe Series. This novel had all the character, charm, and humour of those books along with a dollop of romance and a very big heart.
The eccentric Narwhal family were once very wealthy, but their fortunes have diminished over the centuries. However, the traditions, expectations and responsibilities of the family remain. Hugh, current head of the Narwhal family, is at a complete loss as to how they can change their fortunes. He remembers a childhood of coming home and seeing a dark outline where a picture used to be, but that was when they still had things worth selling. He wants to respect the past, but previous Narwhals have committed terrible sins against the house: sixties wallpaper; a prop holding the ceiling up in the hall; a laundry basket for a bedside table; plumbing pipes sprawling across wood panels. One poor and exasperated ancestor simply tore half the house down to cut costs! Hugh Narwhal lives in this relative chaos, with his wife (our narrator) and their two young sons Billy and Peter. Hugh’s sister Rose, a walking tumult of emotions, drifts through from time to time. There’s Ian, who seems to be a faithful retainer from better times, and still hangs around the place guarding Narwhal treasures and the house’s long history. There’s also a rather formidable cleaner, who’s schedule can’t be changed or diverted for anyone.
The narrator lets us into the day to day chaos of living in an historic building where nothing works, but nor can it be thrown away. There’s a treehouse and bell – integral to a Narwhal bell ringing ceremony, but becoming too dangerous to hold its participants, a lake full of weeds, and various experiments at gardening. Every Narwhal has taken on the mantle with their own ideas and improvements, but no overall vision. The result is rather like a patchwork quilt coming apart at the seams. Hugh was working for a furniture makers in London, when he became head of the family. He promptly moved back to the family home on the Welsh Borders, with the idea of creating his own furniture and upholstery business in a workshop in the grounds. It takes a lot of upholstery to pay the bills, but Hugh feels the responsibility of his inheritance. He doesn’t know what to do with the place, but he doesn’t want anyone else to do it either. Every day the responsibility and his own pride begin to depress him. Mrs Narwhal knows their relationship is suffering, but can’t seem to reach him.
I really enjoyed the narrator, but as I started to write this blog I realised I couldn’t remember her first name. This is how invisible she has become. She’s always there, just a part of the furniture. She is a fixer, but has spent so long going from one disaster to another, she’s forgotten about the bigger picture. When she meets with Rose’s ex-husband we start to see a bit of a support group forming. The pair address each other with a warmth that only two outsiders within a family can. She’s actually very capable, witty, and intelligent but feels like Hugh has stopped seeing her that way. It was so sad, when she dashes to London on a ‘Rose rescue’ mission, that she sees a young couple in a bar and thinks they look familiar. As she’s sat wracking her brain to work out who they look like, she realises that this was her and Hugh before they inherited the hall. Young, vibrant and so interested in each other. She has been worried about whether Hugh loves her anymore, when the truth is he’s just stopped seeing her. More worryingly, as her mind becomes clearer, she starts asking herself the right questions. ‘Do I still love Hugh and is this enough for me?’ This is when change starts to happen.
Change does come to the family, but by different methods for everyone involved and with varying results. It comes about from each character knowing who they are in an authentic way and being honest about what they want. The results are by turns startling (the new tree house for example), creative and exactly right for this family to move forwards. For example, instead of constantly worrying about the mysterious, but stubborn, Ian and his constant disapproval of change. Someone needed to become head of the house and simply tell him what was going to happen. Ultimately, this is how every generation of Narwhal copes – by stating they are now head of the Narwhals and this is what’s going to happen. It takes a formidable character to bring about change in such an institution, although I did retain a small hope that they would reinstate the polar bears either side of the staircase – one holding drinks and one holding canapés. This was a charming, funny, story that touched on some serious issues, but ever so lightly. The ending was uplifting and I loved being in Mrs Narwhal’s company.
Meet The Author
S J Norbury lives in Herefordshire with her family. Mrs Narwhal’s Diary is her first novel.