This novel chronicles the ill-fated events that occur when a party of girls on a sponsored walk become separated from the world by a heavy fog. Set in Dorset, we follow the young girls as they wander ending, by a circuitous route, on the Isle of Portland. Cut off from ‘civilising’ norms, the girls quickly enter a dreamtime state in which they must provide all the explanations for events from their own limited pool of experience. The result is a potent mix of fairy tale, half understood (if keenly felt) observations of the adult world, and all the bits of knowledge that have yet to find a framework from which to hang.
All the normal tensions between the girls become exaggerated and all their obsessions become heightened. Alliances form and reform at great speed. The thin veneer of respectable behaviour is quickly stripped away. If this feels familiar, it is clear from the parallels in the book that Tennant is visiting old ground, but with a fresh eye. Applying a Carteresque sensibility to the question posed by Golding, we see young children becoming adults without the wherewithal to cope - physically or emotionally.
The episodes of what happened are interspersed in the novel with commentary by several adults. One is the author. Another is a doctor who has made a poor and outdated psychological assessment of one of the girls. These calm, reasoned voices contrast with the dreamy, chaotic, emotional journey of the children. They are dull and flawed; just as flawed (if not more so) than the elemental girls.
A sense of magic, of dream, and of raw emotional power, imbues this work. It throws out many more questions than it answers and remains the better for it. Any attempt to explain what happened (beyond that of the clearly flawed adult observers in the book) would have drained the work of any power. Readers of the book are treated as intelligent. The language, as ever with Tennant, is sharp and sparse, glimpses of events as the fog shifts, vignettes lit but sudden sunshine and just as quickly hidden.
I am not familiar with Tennant’s later work (something I intend to rectify), but revisiting her earlier work is enlightening. Based on those early works alone, she is for me one of the great writers in English, head and shoulders above the all the usual (male) names that get trotted out and laved with adulation.