Wanted: a feminine spirit quite undaunted by the world to work as a librarian for a gentleman and his books. Able to live with dogs and children. Preferably without work experience. Graduated and postgraduates need not apply.
As we meet the protagonist of this novel, she’s on her way to be interviewed for the above position, despite her being ‘a highly qualified woman’. She has three degrees – international relations, political science, anthropology – a PhD in sociology and is an expert in library science and medieval Russian art.
The job’s based in a place called San Ireneo de Arnois, an unusual village:
To visitors, San Ireneo de Arnois looked like a place that was firmly rooted in the past. Old stone houses with gardens full of roses stood proudly among a handful of streets that led to a bustling square full of small shops and businesses, buying and selling at the steady pace of a healthy heart. The outskirts of the village were dotted with tiny farms and workshops that supplied the local shops. It was a small community comprising an industrious group of farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers and professionals, a retiring, select circle of academics and the sober brotherhood of monks who lived at the abbey of San Ireneo. They were the cogs of a human engine that was proud of being self-sufficient through trade and the small-scale production of goods and services, and of its neighbourly courtesy…San Ireneo de Arnois was, in fact, a flourishing colony of exiles from the modern world seeking a simple rural life.
Prudencia Prim doesn’t seem to notice all this as she arrives for her interview, but we are told that she feels as though she was born at the wrong time. She believes, ‘The world…had lost its taste for beauty, harmony and balance’.
Despite being overqualified, she gets the job, working for the man who’s only ever referred to as ‘the Man in the Wingchair’. He’s a scholar as well as the guardian for his late sister’s four children and teacher of classical languages to the children in the village.
The majority of the novel is taken up with Prudencia’s time in the village, during which she gets to know the other inhabitants and warm to their ways. It’s clear as soon as she meets the Man in the Wingchair’s charges that the village’s inhabitants are unusual:
Teseris suddenly whispered something in her older brother’s ear before asking softly: ‘Miss Prim, do you think it’s possible to step through a mirror?’
She looked at the child, dumbfounded, before realizing what she meant.
‘I remember my father reading me that story before I went to sleep,’ she said smiling.
The little girl gave her brother a sideways glance.
‘I told you she wouldn’t understand,’ said the boy smugly.
Miss Prim, as her name suggests, has quite set – some might suggest narrow – views on the world and the way things should be. She discovers that both her new employer and the other members of the village also have firm beliefs about the world and they’re also prepared to discuss and debate them, often pre-empting Prudencia’s thoughts about their standpoints. There are discussions about education, religion, philosophy, feminism and whether Prudencia should have a husband. The discussions are interesting; the plot moves along at a steady pace, mirroring Prudencia’s ‘awakening’, and the ending wasn’t the predictable one I feared it was heading for. An interesting, unusual book.
Thanks to Abacus for the review copy.