Off the shelf: In Belfast with Peter's friends: Derek Severn on Peter Waring, a fine but unappreciated work by the novelist Forrest Reid (1938)
Saturday 06 February 1993
His voice was quiet, his range limited to boyhood and youth; but a novelist's stature - witness Jane Austen - is determined not by his range but by the integrity of his vision and the depth of his perception. Reid was a natural storyteller and an acute psychologist, and in Peter Waring (1938) he wrote a wonderfully observed study of the confusion, the gaucheries and the pain of adolescence and first love.
The plot is simple. Peter, the narrator and 17-year-old son of a lonely puritan schoolmaster, falls in love with Katherine Dale, the niece of a well-to-do lady who has befriended - indeed, almost adopted him; but Katherine, although fond of him, feels no such depth of emotion.
After a year of lodging with some vulgar, downat-heel relatives in a Belfast back street in order to attend a grammar school, Peter meets her again. He is still in love with her, but the relationship ends unhappily.
Out of such slight materials Reid fashioned a work of rare distinction, even, perhaps, of genius. Without being in the least derivative it reminds one of Turgenev in its blend of commonplace incident, depth and subtlety of characterisation, sensitivity of response to the natural world and beauty of prose. There is not a false note anywhere: the details are exactly chosen, the secondary characters shrewdly observed.
To read this finely shaded novel is to be reminded of how much the changes in social attitudes in the last 30 years have coarsened the responses of our novelists. There is not one now writing who could register, as Reid does with apparently effortless simplicity, the inflections of emotion, the slight shifts in mood or relationships, which make the reading of this novel so rich an experience.
Still, it is not only in psychological perception that Reid excels. The limpid prose which describes with natural ease the beauty of the Ulster countryside, a back-street boxing match and a country fair rises without a perceptible change of gear to encompass experiences which are almost beyond the reach of words: the hallucinations of severe illness; a pianist rapt in his music; a moment of mystical absorption in Peter's natural surroundings. The effect is to give a tonal unity to a story which is more varied than it first appears.
It is a masterly novel which Turgenev would surely have been pleased to have written; but it is out of print.
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