Review: Onwards and Downwards
I read this book because I am currently reading just about anything I can lay my hands on if it is to do with Sussex. I was very pleasantly surprised by the content.
Rachel West avoids laborious over-detailed descriptions and although her childhood and adolescence in 1940s and 1950s Sussex wasn’t always pleasant West does not wallow in the sour wine of self-pity or try to appeal to the reader’s sympathy. Instead she tells her story in a matter-of-fact way and with what I can only describe as ruthless self-honesty at times. Where relations were strained or situations dire West lays out the facts, acknowledges the part she played herself but does not judge or condemn; that is left to the reader if he or she chooses to do so. It is perhaps telling how different the times were when West shrugs away situations which would see later generations running for the comfort of therapy.
You can almost hear West say ‘Well that is how it was and we had to make do with that.’ This pragmatism is reflected not only in those more difficult moments but also the physical descriptions of everyday life in a time when household tasks were far more laborious and time consuming than they are today and youngsters would walk for miles to get to the cinema. It is not all drudgery and hardship; West manages to capture the various stages of naivety or rebelliousness of her awareness as a child and teenager vividly and this really makes the story come alive with plenty of light comic moments and anecdotes which are downright funny and will leave the reader chuckling. I was struck by the author’s admission that she has been influenced by Virginia Woolf who was neighbour to the author’s grandparents and the way West has woven that influence into her life’s story; finding comfort or understanding in Woolf’s words throughout West’s own life.
West’s greatest accomplishment, subjectively speaking, is to present the ordinary life of a Sussex girl within the context of a particular time period with all its social and economic implications, in such a manner that the reader is reminded that every life, ordinary or not, is extraordinary none-the-less. In this she has very much succeeded in her own stated motivation for writing this book which was to leave a legacy for her children, grand-children and first great-grand-child. I rather envy them for having Onwards and Downwards at their disposal as a time portal which portrays the ups and downs of a near-ancestor in such a clear, witty and poignant manner. I hope this story will be passed on to many succeeding generations as a remarkable insight into what it means to be a human being.
The author online
At the time of writing Onwards and Downwards is available as Kindle e-book (see link below) but the paperback will be available by the end of October 2015. It can be ordered on Amazon but it can also be ordered at your local bookstore and as always I recommend supporting small local businesses over large co-operations.