House of Secrets

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Nina Bawden: The Secret Passage
Puffin Books 1979 (1963)

After an idyllic upbringing in Kenya three young children — John, Mary and Ben Mallory — suddenly lose their mother, only to be sent to a bleak seaside resort in England to stay with their ‘disagreeable’ Aunt Mabel, the landlady of a boarding house. To the trauma of losing one parent is added the mysterious disappearance of their father, a complete change of environment and the ministrations of a relative who is not only distant but seemingly resentful.

Bewildering as their new life is, there are further mysteries: how does Aunt Mabel survive when lodgers are few are far between and the two she does have appear not to pay rent? Why did their aunt have to move from a grander house next door, and are the rumours of a secret passage between the two buildings based on reality? And does one of the children truly see a face at the attic window next door or is it their imagination?

This, the earliest of Nina Bawden’s books for children, has an assured touch and a strong narrative, the action tipping over from one fraught incident into another until the final resolutions bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, even though it’s a close-run thing. This Puffin edition has a note that when republished in 1979 the opening chapters were shortened, but nothing essential appears to have been lost in the condensing.

Bawden accurately captures the sense of disorientation that the young must feel when uprooted from what they are used to: she achieved something similar in Carrie’s War, about child evacuees during the war, and in Off the Road, a dystopia set in the Welsh Marches. I myself remember that feeling of strangeness when I moved — at roughly the same age and period (in 1958, in fact) — from Hong Kong to a city in the West Country.

But the children are both resourceful and resilient, each with their own distinctive personality: one curious, another serious and cautious, the last confidently sociable. The various adults are depicted from the Mallory trio’s point of view, their motives and mood changes for the most part hard to fathom; and there is, additionally, the enigma of the face at the window to solve.

I’m guessing the town of Henstable, reached by train from London, is somewhere on the North Sea coast, like Whitstable in Kent: “It was dark and cold and the wind sliced through their thin clothes like a sharp knife.” And yet in amongst the drudgery of Britain’s postwar years there are signs of positivity, with intimations of a flowering of arts in the resort: cheerful Mr Agnew, one of the lodgers, is a sculptor, the other lodger Miss Pin, old and bird-like, has a room full of curios and treasures, and their new acquaintance Victoria turns out to be a promising young pianist.

Though no conventional fantasy there is the thrill of that underground passage, a portal to access an unknown world, what John calls the House of Secrets. Not as magical as the back of a wardrobe nor as adventurous as a castle tunnel on an island, Bawden’s concept is of an Aladdin’s cave of a house crammed full of paintings, sculptures and objets d’art. She has created a limited environment in which to place the human drama, one in which it takes a while for some adults to realise that, at heart, what the children need is love and understanding.

The third book read on holiday

9 thoughts on “House of Secrets

  1. This plot is so familiar, I must have read it as a child. I definitely read Carrie’s War, of course – I suspect most people of my generation did. Lovely review, Chris. Makes me want to read this again … 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, stories we — voracious readers — consumed as children, the story line hiding in our mental recesses when the title and author maybe eludes us. Glad this evoked memories, Lynn!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Having the sensory-sensitive kids that I have, I think we as adults too easily forget just how much a change in setting can traumatize a child; being torn away from anything and everything familiar, left only with each other (assuming they get along). Nothing feels certain, anything can leave you like a parent dying.

    It’s just so much for a little one to fear, so I can see how young readers would be engaged by this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed, Jean, I think it’s easier if you’ve been sensory-sensitive yourself as a child (or remain so as an adult) to appreciate a youngster’s distress at a change of environment, even clothing, say, not to mention personal circumstances (as in the example you mention). It probably takes a sensitive adult author to be able to write perceptively about childhood sensitivities, enough to spark recognition for their young readers.

      Liked by 1 person

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