The Youngest Son by Tony Chapelle.
Feilding: Rangitawa Publishing (2016).
Reviewed by Carolyn McCurdie.
The Youngest Son is the companion novel to Palmerston North writer, Tony Chapelle’s 2015 novel of Victorian England, Merely a Girl. In the first story, the ‘girl’ of the title is Adelaide Gilbard, who towards the end of the novel marries the youngest son of an old Welsh family, Tomas Gerold. The Youngest Son is the story of Tomas and his world.
In both books, there is a strong sense of the time and place. Chapelle skilfully captures the voices and attitudes of the time, the rigid social classifications based on gender, race, status conferred by wealth, land ownership, and family name. In Tom’s story, the grandeur of the Welsh landscape looms. People are insignificant here. Tom feels the threat of social insignificance keenly as well, and he often seethes with resentful anger because of his position as third son. He will not inherit any part of the Gerold lands, although he has been financially provided for. I found it hard to understand why he felt quite so cheated, as if he felt ambushed by this unsurprising reality.
And this is a world of brutal realities. The novel provides a wonderful contrast between the outward orderliness of respectable society, and the underlying economic and social dangers. The view that these ‘gentlefolk’ take of anything deemed unacceptable is pitiless, as can be their readiness to sacrifice others for their own benefit. Sometimes this is shocking. Within Tom’s family, his second brother, David and new wife, Marion are privately less attractive than they seem. Marion’s brother confides to her that he knows that he is not the father of his wife’s new son. Later, Marion tries to use this information, given in trust, to push the child aside as heir to their family property, in favour of her own children. When David hears that the elder brother, Osborn, in Australia, has just become father of a son, he consoles himself with the thought that this child might die.
Tomas is equally without feeling in pursuit of his own interests. He is a handsome man and confident of his ability to charm and manipulate women. At David’s home on the Gerold estate, he meets Ursula, the daughter of David’s agent. Ursula is young, with no experience of men other than her father, and Tom quickly seduces her. She falls passionately in love, and trusts that her love is reciprocated. On the same day that Ursula tells Tom she is pregnant, her father (unaware of the affair) warns him that a business arrangement that he was hoping would secure his future, is in fact, fraudulent. This news completely eclipses Tom’s response to Ursula and he barely gives her condition another thought. He seems incapable of caring about the impact the pregnancy must have on her or of considering that his own life might be altered at all.
Certainly, this attitude of entitlement/?privilege, including sexual entitlement, and the shrug of the shoulders about the plight of those lower on the social scale, makes Tom simply a man of his time and class. But, unfortunately for the novel, he is never more than that. I found the earlier novel, Merely a Girl, an enjoyable read, in large part because the main character, Adelaide, Tom’s future wife, is a strong, interesting individual. I believed in her and cared about her. I did not find Tom Gerold interesting. Addie discomforts him, because of her self-containment, her refusal to be charmed. He deals with this by dismissing her as an ‘aberration.’ When Ursula talks about the world’s injustices, Tom interprets/construes this as part of her childish charm. She and her thoughts are not to be taken seriously. The only injustice he cares about is the one he perceives as cheating him of his inheritance because of his third son status.
One thing I did enjoy in The Youngest Son, was the strong part the environment plays in the story. The Welsh landscape around the Gerold estate, its magnificence and wildness, provides contrast and appropriate setting for polite society and a kind of animal undercurrent. When a whisky-and-self-pity-soaked Tom goes to Liverpool, planning the next stage of his life, he describes it as a city filled with ‘a restless discontent with itself’. Such details give power to the story, and to the lives.
But oddly, just as in Merely a Girl, as soon as the characters emigrate, the story seems to become summary. There is almost no observation of New Zealand as a place, nor the people in it. The newly married Tom and Addie arrive in New Plymouth, but the story focusses on Tom’s unchanged thrashing about with bouts of drinking and womanising. It may be that this part of the story remains to be told, as indeed, there are many dangling loose ends. Unbeknownst to Tom, for example, his son by Ursula is in NZ.
If there is to be a third novel, I have mixed feelings. I want to know what happens to Addie. Ursula died on the sea journey, but the appearance of her son would create interesting complications. And maybe Tom will discover his own unsuspected depths.
Carolyn McCurdie is a Dunedin writer of fiction and poetry. She has had published: The Unquiet, a children’s novel, (Dunedin: Longacre Press: 2006); Albatross, a short story collection (e-publisher Rosa Mira Books: 2014), and Bones in the Octagon, a poetry collection (Makāro Press: 2015). Carolyn is active in Dunedin’s live poetry scene.
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