Book #173: ♫ A Five Year Sentence by Bernice Rubens ★★★½
Narrator: Nicolette McKenzie
Edition: Isis Publishing (2014), Unabridged MP3; 7h23
Awards & Distinctions: Booker Prize Shortlist (1978)
Original publication date: 1978
On the day of her retirement from the sweets factory where she has been working for over 40 years, Miss Jean Hawkins has resolved this to be the last day of her life, and she has made all the necessary preparations to that end. Then she goes in to her last day of work and is given as a cheap retirement gift a five-year diary, and she takes this as an order from above that she’s been given a five-year sentence to live, and that furthermore, she must fill a page from the diary every single day. Miss Hawkins has had up till then a rather sad and uneventful life, growing up in an orphanage, from which she took away mostly unhappy memories of the nasty Matron, who held her back from being adopted into a foster family because she was a good helper around the orphanage, and properly trampled down on any sense of self or individuality, among other minor horrors, and also of finding young Morris’s body, a fellow orphan girl who took her life by hanging herself with the rags used as sanitary napkins, shortly after beginning her menstruation, after which Matron had convinced Miss Hawkins she had had a nasty nightmare and the event never took place, even though Morris was never seen again. In short, nothing since then has come into her life to make her forget these sad events, and nobody in all her decades at the factory has ever even bothered to find out what her first name was beyond the ‘Miss’. Lacking in sophistication or imagination, used to taking orders all her life, she initially has little to say for herself in that diary, until the day she has a sudden inspiration to give herself orders which she must follow up on and then tick off once they are accomplished. At first she starts with easy to accomplish things, such as “watch tv” or “take a long walk”, and eventually she becomes more daring till she works her way up to “meet a man” then once that’s accomplished, “have the man kiss you”, no small thing for a woman who is still a virgin by her mid-sixties.
Rubens’s writing is excellent, and her black humour just as excellently mordant as I enjoyed it to be in The Waiting Game, my first book by her (click on link to see my recent review), but somehow I couldn’t enjoy this novel as much. For one thing, Miss Hawkins is such a pathetic character and so self-deluded, which in and of itself wouldn’t have been so bad and might have been very amusing to me if there hadn’t also been a man present to take advantage of her foolishness and rob her of all she had, a situation which I couldn’t help but find unbearably sad. There’s the way in which she goes about finding a man, which is initially very pathetic yet quite funny. It’s mostly in the details, but in essence, she goes to the library and stands in the religious texts sections and there tries to grab the first man she sees by calling out to him “isn’t it a nice day?!”, and sure enough, eventually she does bump into a man and run her line by him, even though it happens to be raining by then. That he happens not to seem particularly interested and then shortly establishes that he lives with his mother who never lets him out of her sight other than to go to the library to get her lurid thriller novels which he picks out purely by how graphic the covers look doesn’t deter our heroine, nor does the fact that he turns out to be a perfect cad who expects her to pay for everything. No self-respecting woman would give a man like that the time of day, but our poor Miss Hawkins has no notions of self-respect, so instead she finds him all the more appealing for it and is willing to enter into a little game with him, and furiously expends her frustrations in an endless scarf knitting project, where she puts all her anger about Matron, which has never abated, even after all these years, into every stitch, never once considering that the man who has been taking advantage of her and stealing her savings should be the target for her anger instead of all the girlish fantasies she indulges in over several years to come.
While I’m able to see the humour in the situation, it also cuts a bit too close to the bone. How many times have we women deluded ourselves to make untenable situations seem rosy just in order to keep going? In that sense, this book is truly brilliant, which is probably what garnered it a shortlisting for the Booker Prize in 1978, but I rated it based on the reading pleasure it did or did not give me, and in this case, while I enjoyed it, I was also rather looking forward to getting to the end of a difficult ordeal. All the same, recommended—Rubens does have such a great wicked sense of humour—but with some reservations of course.
The narrator Nicolette McKenzie was excellent on this audio version, but there is a very minor glitch, with one 3-second bit that was obviously intended to be edited out and left in by mistake.