The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker

Virago, 1986, 286 p. (This novel is also known as Liza’s England.)

The Century's Daughter cover

Stephen is a social worker, troubled by the youths down at what passes for the local centre, and also by his parents who are uncomfortable with (or in his mother’s case unaware of) his homosexuality. He is assigned to Liza Jarrett, an old woman living with a parrott called Nelson (whom she inherited from a pub landlord when the pub closed down) in a terraced house scheduled for demolition but which she is unwilling to give up. Liza was born on the stroke of midnight at 1899’s turn into 1900 and dubbed ‘Daughter of the Century’ by the local newspaper, a clipping of which her father was very proud. This made her one of that generation who lost brothers in one war and sons in the next. The novel is, though, more a tale of female resilience in and around that century’s defining landmarks (which it deals with only tangentially, even if their repercussions impact mightily on Liza’s life.) It intersperses Liza’s memories with Stephen’s experiences in the present as he comes to appreciate her and her determination to make the best of things, to fend for herself, to depend on nobody, and, with its present being the 1980s, illuminates the passing of a sense of community, of worth, “‘that’s where it all went wrong you know. It was all money. You’d’ve thought we had nowt else to offer. But we did. We had a way of life, a way of treating people.’”

There is some ground here to which Barker would return in her Regeneration trilogy (in particular the Great War and its munitions workers known as canaries.) While it tends to the bleak there are some moments of wry humour. At Stephen’s dad’s funeral, “‘It’s like a wedding in there,’ Stephen said. ‘No it isn’t,’ said Christine. Weddings aren’t that cheerful.’”

This was Barker’s third novel and while the characterisation is good her writing had not quite yet attained the maturity it would display later. The story is engaging though and Liza’s life reflects the stoicism of the women of her generation and class not often exhibited in fiction with the novel overall a threnody for a lost solidarity.

Pedant’s corner:- a missing comma before a piece of direct speech (x 2,) wrack and ruin (OK, it’s a legitimate alternative but to me wrack is a seaweed, so, rack and ruin), minaly (mainly,) “from his dying from his dying body” (only one ‘from his dying’ needed.) “Most of the crowd were young” (Most of the crowd was young.)

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