Tindal Street Press £12.99

After Such Kindness, By Gaynor Arnold

The 'Girl in a Blue Dress' author turns her attention from Dickens to Lewis Carroll, and treads carefully but deliberately into 'Lolita' territory

'I was initially wary about writing another novel set in the 19th century, and featuring yet another famous writer," Gaynor Arnold admits in the afterword to After Such Kindness. Luckily, the tantalising draw of the relationship between Charles Dodgson and Alice Liddell, also known as Lewis Carroll and his Alice in Wonderland muse, proved too strong for Arnold to resist. As finely wrought as her 2008 debut, Girl in a Blue Dress – a literary gem which revisited Charles Dickens's life from the perspective of his estranged wife, Catherine – After Such Kindness finds its nuanced balance via five very different narrators: John Jameson (a stand-in for Charles Dodgson); Daisy (Alice Liddell's stand-in); Margaret Constantine (the grown-up Daisy); Daniel Baxter (Daisy's father); and Evelina Baxter (Daisy's mother).

The book opens in 1862, with an introduction to Jameson: a 35-year-old, six-foot-tall Oxford academic, mathematician and clergyman who is sensitively attuned to the craft of photography, "an art on a par with drawing or sculpture and needs just the same amount of concentration and finesse". He is a social recluse, but known for his published satires. ("The more firmly an opinion is held," he tells the Dean of his college, "the more I am inclined to make fun of it.")

Forced into a corner at work, Jameson reluctantly makes the acquaintance of his colleague Daniel Baxter. In doing so, he meets Baxter's family, which includes Daisy, a "quick and curious", highly precocious and perceptive 11-year-old with a mind of her own. Daisy longs for an element of control over her life, as becomes clear when her beloved nanny is unceremoniously given the boot: "The more I tried to make sense of it all, the more nonsensical it seemed. The rules of life seemed arbitrary and cruel … I could not help feeling that it was a topsy-turvy arrangement, and that if I had charge of the world, I would make sure children would be listened to, and people like Nettie treated as they deserved. But of course I did not have charge of the world. I hardly had charge of myself."

Jameson's wit, gifts and generous attentions gain Daisy's notice – she had been a bit lost amid the family, between her older sisters and her parents' only son – and he, smitten, is eager to befriend her. He entices her with on-the-spot stories and enjoyable conversations about nature, enigmas and whether God has hobbies. Soon, the two are fast friends; Jameson is included on family picnics and Daisy partakes of tea parties at his college rooms, revelling in the attention: "It was the first time any adult had noticed me in that particular kind of way – listening to my questions and giving me proper answers."

Cut to 10 years later, when the newly-married Margaret Constantine, in an effort to clear out her old family home, is digging around in the old trunk in her nursery. From under a pile of puzzles, games and well-thumbed copies of Robinson Crusoe, The Water Babies, Oliver Twist and Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales, she unearths her childhood diary and revisits a time that was at first exciting and enlightening, then chaotic and terrifying; a time which left her, as we soon learn, with a four-year-long memory gap.

Arnold laces her tale with a lively infusion of all things Lewis Carroll. Familiar images – a looking-glass; nursemaids and piglet-babies; puddles made of tears; cupboards and keyholes; Cheshire cats, walruses, dormice, oysters and caterpillars – pop up with a knowing wink and a nod. Merging 19th, 20th and 21st centuries with a distinctly measured approach, Arnold also draws on her experience as a contemporary childcare social worker, weaving a tapestry rich with imagination, madness and sadness. (At a particularly painful point in Daisy's story, it comes with relief when a stalwart character, gentle with kindness, attempts to take charge: "Tell me again … but calmly this time, Daisy. So I can understand.")

Arnold's precise depiction of Victorian manners and mannerisms shines, as does her ability to give young Daisy an arresting narrative voice. The context of the young girl's limited world comes through – and so does her impatient chafing against those limitations. In the telling scene in which Daisy watches her beloved nanny Nettie packing to leave, the child is trying desperately to gain a few answers and insights, while Nettie is attempting to maintain a sense of decorum without losing control of her own roiling emotions. Nettie packs her case, as Daisy perceives it, "with a good deal of steady attention, as if she was doing arithmetic in her head".

There's little doubt of Arnold's other literary inspiration – the first pages reflect several shades of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita – but Arnold has more than one trick up her sleeve in her approach to this story, which is by turns amusing, engaging and disconcerting.

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
Crime watch: Cara Delevingne and Daniel Brühl in ‘The Face of an Angel’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
music Malik left the Asian leg of the band's world tour after being signed off with stress last week
News
Author J.K. Rowling attends photocall ahead of her reading from 'The Casual Vacancy' at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on September 27, 2012 in London, England.
peopleNot the first time the author has defended Dumbledore's sexuality
News
‘The Late Late Show’ presenter James Corden is joined by Mila Kunis and Tom Hanks for his first night as host
news
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
photography
News
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
people
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
    Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

    A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss