Philip Norman's fourth novel, but first to be published in the United States, is the story of a young boy's slow awakening to the disappointments, cruelties and hypocrisies of life. It is a genre that has by now become rather threadbare; Norman's contribution to it is sensitive and well written, and his evocation of postwar Britain is appealing without being slurpily nostalgic, yet one comes to the end of "The Skaters' Waltz" with the sense of having gone through familiar territory one time too often.
The boy in question is named Louis Belmayne; the story covers his life, not on the whole a happy one, between the ages of 4 and 11. He is the only son of unhappily married parents who live on the Isle of Wight, where his father operates an amusement pier featuring slot machines and a roller skating rink. While his mother stays primarily in the background, his father is all-dominating:
"He occurred in Louis's life like a strong wind, obscurely glorying in its power to destroy ordinary conventions. His coming filled Louis with excitement that was also anxiety -- for some reason, when Dad was there, he became conscious of his own small silhouette, his weakness and paleness, the bareness of his legs against Dad's rough tweed, but above all, conscious of his inability to bend Dad, as other people, to his will. For words had no power when the hazel brown eyes looked at him: he felt his thoughts founder and his voice fail and fade beneath a curt and crushing logic."
Dad is a charismatic figure to his son and others, yet he is a born loser whose grand plans and schemes invariably come to naught. His one moment of glory was in the war, when the plane he was piloting was shot down and he was severely injured; after his recovery, though, his life -- and therefore those of his wife and son -- has been a succession of shabby jobs in unprepossessing places. His treatment of his family is inconsistent and capricious; he can be a charmer one minute, aloof and dismissive the next.
So Louis retreats into himself and his lonely existence, observing the passing adult show with fascination, surprise and fear. His longing for love unfulfilled by either of his parents, he turns to his paternal grandmother, Nanny Belmayne, whom he loves, "as she loved him, more than anyone in the world." She lives in London, in Clapham Old Town, and his visits there are the high moments of his life, just as she herself is the novel's most interesting, appealing character:
"Nobody could be like Nanny Belmayne, and yet every little old lady he saw was a little like her. Nanny Belmayne appeared to him as a monarch, ruling the whole race of old ladies, whose lives were regulated by her example who dressed corns or bunions, made pots of tea, suffered from bad legs, sucked peppermints, knitted tea-cosies, went to the Doctor's, bathed their feet, slipped covers over hot water bottles, stroked cats, took afternoon rests, drank Guinness, put false teeth in and discussed Rheumatism, Arthritis, Mr Churchill and the mild winter, with due acknowledgement and deference to the originator of these pursuits."
But not even Nanny Belmayne is perfect; the toy she promises to knit for Louis turns out not to be the one he had requested, and his disappointment at discovering that the treachery of adults extends even to her is deep indeed. But the letdown to which she subjects him is nothing compared to the duplicity of Dad, who grows increasingly distant from and impatient with his family. The arguments between his parents that Louis overhears grow ever more bitter and nasty; gradually it dawns on him that there is something scandalous in the relationship between Dad and a female roller skating performer who is a regular at the pier, a suspicion that is confirmed when Dad at last leaves the family.
This is all rather familiar material -- the lonely child, the weak mother, the irresponsible father, the other woman -- and Norman does little to spruce it up. For American readers the Isle of Wight makes an unusual and interesting setting, but that is not enough to compensate for the novel's almost unremitting bleakness or its slight, unenergetic plot. Philip Norman is a gifted and accomplished writer, but "The Skaters' Waltz" is disappointingly thin.