Dream House by Jan Mark,
illustrated by Jon Riley.
Puffin Books 1989 (1987).
“West Stenning is a sixteenth-century manor house set in rolling Kentish downland, four miles from Ashford and eleven miles from the historic city of Canterbury. Why not join us for a long weekend of writing, music or painting? Courses tutored by professional writers, artists and musicians run from…”Dream House
West Stenning: a venue in rural Kent where schoolgirl Hannah helps with domestic chores between courses there; which celebrity-mad Dina haunts so she can glimpse or even meet famous people; where Julia, headstrong daughter of an actor tutoring on the course, heads to demand his attention.
Yet, unbeknown to all, Hannah’s younger brother Tom – who has visions of being a town planner and architect – is not only observing them all but, by sharing or withholding information, is also instrumental in deciding the outcomes of each girl’s hopes for the week, none of which are as they’d planned.
Having set everything up all Tom then has to do is to sit back and watch because, as we’re told, “Things were coming nicely to the boil on their own.”
This novella, with its comings and goings, is as expertly plotted as an Austen novel, though minus the romance. The focus is mostly on Hannah, but we get clear insights into what motivates each of the four youngsters – the adults, for all their busying and bustling about, are mere pawns in the teenagers’ deadly serious games. Julia is spoilt, self-centred, self-pitying and full of undeserved airs and graces; Dina is desperate to ingratiate herself with famous names but starts to realise they’re just as weak as ordinary folk. Meanwhile, Hannah tries to run the gauntlet of grown-ups who might put an end to her involvement with the manor.
Jan Mark was herself brought up near Ashford and so brings a sense of place to this tale. East and West Stenning are fictional but the various real placenames cited here situate the settlements just outside the Canterbury / Folkestone/ Ashford triangle, an area the author of course knew well though she’d moved away from Kent by the time she wrote this book. Similarly, the three principal female characters are entirely believable, aspects of whom she’d doubtless drawn from individuals she’d known from her schooldays at Ashford Girls’ Grammar School.
In some ways Tom is the most intriguing individual, being full of contradictions. He appears to enjoy birdwatching and to be fond of wildlife and nature, yet he spends his time designing roads and urban developments for Kent which will cover much of the ‘garden of England’ with concrete, all to link up with the yet-to-be-built Channel Tunnel. The fact is that everyone underestimates him, allowing him to get away with much that they shouldn’t let happen.
I did enjoy what some might see as a slight piece of fiction but which shouldn’t itself be underestimated. Mark’s command of dialogue is as masterly as her plotting and characterisation and can be readily appreciated by readers of all ages. She really is an author who should be better known, and her body of work reissued.
More details about Jan Mark and her work can be had at https://janmark.net/, maintained by Jon Appleton (who, with David Fickling and Philip Pullman, contributed to the Guardian obituary that appeared in 2006).