"The Ice House" is the latest in a long line of pleasant, undemanding and well-crafted novels by the popular English author Nina Bawden. Like each of her earlier books, it offers a methodical shift of perspective in the series of vignettes through which Bawden seems bent on composing a full-scale portrait of contemporary English middle-class life.
Each "installment" is roughly the same length and has the same look and tone and flavor as the next one. Although I do not mean to suggest by this that her many novels are indistinguishable from each other, it is true that most of them tend to flow together in the memory, forming a kind of huge quintessential Nina Bawden book, as light and digestible as a good souffle'.
Consequently, "The Ice House" is as useful an introduction to her work as any of them. It has the "familiar passions" (title of an earlier Bawden novel) and the standard themes: marital bliss and disillusionment, layer upon layer, like onion skins; misunderstandings between generations; rooted childhood fears and fantasies still entangling the present. It even has the same principal personalities, ranged against each other with due symmetry: wives and husbands; adulterers and cuckolds; mothers and children; the coarse old mother-in-law; the heroine with a modest drinking problem; the dropout son. And the setting is, as so often, comfortable, inner suburban London, from which the characters flee, at times of domestic crisis, to some exotic Mediterranean country; in "The Ice House," it is Egypt, in others, Turkey or Morocco. Her comic portraits of the English sojourning abroad are among the best moments of her books.
Daisy Brown and Ruth Perkins have been best friends since childhood, their relationship representing a classic attraction of opposites. Ruth is "small and dark and intense," from an unhappy home (the "ice house" of the title was used by Ruth's father as a pit of punishment), whereas Daisy is plump and fair and happy-go-lucky, with idyllic childhood memories. They grow up, contract into more or less happy marriages, and come to live near each other in the same gentrified row of terraces, with a view of London's "astonishing sky line" on the one hand and "the plastic detritus" of a sordid tenement on the other.
The chief catalyst of action is the alleged suicide of Daisy's husband. But what this event catalyzes is not, as one might expect, the unraveling of Ruth's and Daisy's secure family lives. It is the gradual realization of both families that their lives were pretty unraveled already, shredded by false expectations, misplaced trust and betrayal. From this point on, the novel acquires the character of a real thriller, as Ruth tries to identify and defeat her husband's mistress and she and Daisy set about reordering their friendship in the light of changed circumstances. It is impossible not to admire the ease with which Bawden manipulates the intricate elements of her plot.
"The Ice House" is also a vehicle for the familiar Bawden voice, so easy to listen to, so difficult to pin down; sympathetically breezy perhaps describes it best. Pain and bitterness and loss are the very stuff of her plots, but, for the most part, are distanced to the point of shrugging good humor by her brisk manner.
"This is a comedy, not a tragedy," says Daisy revealingly, at a moment of crisis. "The way human beings behave. Like in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.' The only serious characters are the fairies. The people are jokes." Bawden doesn't exactly set up her characters as jokes; nor do her interests extend to "fairies," the spiritual element. But "The Ice House" is social comedy, in Daisy's sense, symmetrical and neatly resolved, with no extraneous or overreaching passions to disturb the reader's dreams. Nina Bawden is no Jane Austen, however. There is surprisingly little shimmer to her language, and less muscle. "What she felt above all was physical shock, an inward chill spreading from her heart and lungs outward, like some rampant illness, a rampaging cancer. And yet she had moved about, cooked, smiled, walked the dog, helped Daisy prepare the food the guests would eat after the funeral, ironed Joe's black tie . . ." The whole book sustains this tone, stylish but verging on the cliche'd, leaving an impression of too-rapid creation. For all its meticulous craftsmanship, "The Ice House" is not an aspiring work of art.
This is nonetheless an accomplished novel, in the manner that Bawden has brought to a peak of casual perfection over the years. In her earlier novels, I have been especially struck by her renderings of life from the child's-eye point of view: "A Little Love, A Little Learning" (1966) and "The Birds on the Trees" (1970) are two favorites. But there is something rather stale, even formulaic, about "The Ice House" that suggests that Nina Bawden may be exhausting, finally, the possibilities of her material.