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Mad Hatter

Review by Carol Ann Sokoloff

Mad Hatter
Amanda Hale
Guernica Editions
462 pages

Amanda Hale has a challenging family story that she wisely chose to write as fiction. Few of us can say we really know or understand our parents, even if we spent the majority of our lives with them. But the author’s father disappeared when she was very young and it has taken Hale, an English-born Canadian poet and novelist, decades to grapple with this mystery. In the course of exploration she uncovered a disturbing chronology dating from prior to World War II where her father found himself on the wrong side of history. Like many in the British upper classes, Christopher Hale was an ardent supporter of Oswald Moseley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists. Christopher Hale had been ensconced in his family’s thriving hat business until his increasing zeal for the British Union caused him to desert a comfortable life with his refined wife Cynthia and their children to take up an increasingly fanatical mission.

Told from multiple points of view, Mad Hatter is a sensitive and poetic inquiry into the nature of family, misguided idealism and conditions in the United Kingdom leading to and during the stressful wartime period. Hale uses her own personal story as a spotlight on the forces at play in Britain and in Europe during this critical period. It is a delicate subject and one applauds both the author and publisher for daring to tackle it. While today we shrink from the notion that Britain came close to accepting an appeasement of Hitler and Nazi Germany, it must be remembered that at the time anti-Semiticism was acceptable and many of the privileged classes were keen to have Hitler subdue what they considered to be the scourge of Communism. The author’s treatment of her father strikes a precarious balance, showing Christopher as ‘mad’ (hence the title) while still having empathy for this person whom she portrays as considering himself a pacifist, a warrior for peace.

Mad Hatter employs multiple voices to unfold it’s complicated tale and for the most part this approach is seamless as the narration slips from first to third person in rotating chapters. Indeed, there are several narrators. There is an objective narrator who writes in the third person and shows us Christopher, starting at the time of his first detainment on suspicion of siding with the enemy, once Britain has declared war on Germany in 1940. It also show us his relations with Cynthia. his refined, supportive and increasingly mystified wife. This objective narrator follows Christopher through various captivities and into regained freedom and the return to family life. But the Christopher who returns has changed, has taken on a yet more fanatical mission and this narrator tracks his break from the family and his actions until an eventual apparent suicide.

But there is another narrator and this one speaks to us in the first person. Hers is an italicized voice that transcends time, that speaks from both the present and the past. We meet this voice on the first page, speaking prior to her own conception as the child of Christopher and Cynthia Hale.

“The head of our family was missing, drowned they say…” Hale writes. “I lived in his body before I became myself… His presence lingers like the perfume of a woman long after she has left the room. This perfume is memory – my memory of unconditional love for the man I scarcely knew.”

This italicized voice intermittently interrupts the narrative throughout Part One of Mad Hatter, to comment, shed light or reflect upon events. Events such as her own conception and birth as Katie, the youngest child of the family, conceived on Christopher’s first visit home after his initial detention.

The most engaging voice in the novel, however, belongs to the young Irish housekeeper, Mary Byrne, whom one suspects the author most bonded with in early childhood. It is Mary, who speaks to us also in the first person, in a lilting Irish brogue, who cares for the children, keeps Cynthia company during her husband’s absences, who watches and listens and intuits a dark atmosphere disturbing the calm appearance of a privileged lifestyle.

“If you could have stood beside me at the window that day and seen the Master tossing Birdie up in the air, Cynthia pushing Charlotte on the swing, and Jimmy sweeping at the grass with his cricket bat, you would have thought they were the perfect family, but you would have been wrong. All you had to do was watch those children in their Magic Circle. It was not play they were at but something desperate and dark with a terrible innocence about it.”

It is from Mary that we learn about Cynthia with whom she develops a close relationship, about the household and its ghosts, about the strange Master, about how someone Irish feels caught up in a British war climate, about children and their feelings and needs, and about the heart and the search for love. Mary, whose own brother is engaged in the war effort, gradually understands the truth of Christopher’s politics and eventually is let go after an uncharacteristic outburst in which she calls him a Nazi.

With the most likeable character jettisoned from the narrative, Hale begins Part Two of the novel, again with the italicized narrator’s voice assuring us that Mary will reappear and that she herself, now in the voice of the youngest child Katie, will continue the story. So in Part Two Katie shares the unfolding episodes of Christopher’s unhingement and flight from the family and of the ways in which Cynthia and the children cope. As promised Mary Byrne reappears and in the end a surprising connection between these close characters is revealed

The use of various voices is perhaps an ingenious approach to sketching the details of a truth that is largely unknown. Drawing on her own memory, family lore and the little evidence that exists, Hale uses this device to flesh out with masterful storytelling the experiences and inner awareness of a variety of richly-detailed characters in an intriguing historical period. The objective narrator that observes the mysterious Christopher is a steady voice throughout the book. The child who loves and misses Daddy and longs for a return to family stability is also well expressed. But it is Mary with her Irish lilt and humble origins, her common sense and loving nature, that makes the story sing.

While the multiple voices help the author tell this difficult tale, they occasionally present challenges for the reader. The opening with the disembodied voice of the author pre-conception, is somewhat oblique and one suspects was written last and perhaps needs to be read again after finishing the novel to fully comprehend. But on the whole the writing is stirring and evocative, the characters come to life with deft strokes of imagery and dialogue. And even Christopher, whose motivations can’t fully be comprehended and whose ending neither the author nor the reader can be certain about, becomes someone we care about.

Mad Hatter touches on several fascinating subjects from this time period, many of which re-echo in our own. Matters of class, culture, idealism, fanaticism, the nature of the family, the role of women, the vulnerability of children and the suffering of all parties engaged in the climate of war permeate the novel. All these elements come together, as the different voices, in this well-told story of an extraordinary time – a remarkable effort which deserves to be widely read.

Carol Ann Sokoloff is a poet, author, editor and jazz vocalist/songwriter. She has published several books including Eternal Lake O'Hara (poetry and history) and Colours Everywhere You Go (for children); and produced Let Go!, a CD of jazz standards and originals. She is based in Victoria, BC, where she teaches popular continuing studies writing programs through the University of Victoria.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #25