In her new novel, Susie Boyt introduces 38-year old Harriet Goodman as she visits her psychiatrist for the last time. Having survived a childhood of physical and emotional abuse, Harriet is determined that, after ten years of therapy and a recent large inheritance, she can turn her life around and become a "triumph".
Written in the third person, past tense, the novel immerses us in the nervous whirling of Harriet's consciousness. Her disjointed thought process is dizzying, heightened by rallying mantras and exclamation marks. Eccentric, archaic Harriet even describes her mindset using self- help manual titles ("Putting up with Stuff"). Boyt has a gift for creating loveable protagonists and, despite Harriet's oddities, we're won over by this oversized, sweet-hearted misfit who announces that she will open a school, "a sort of paradise for children". Harriet's school is indeed triumphant. Her rose-coloured vision is complete down to the bird detail in the wallpaper, the softly playing Schubert and the cherry -checked uniforms. Opening day is a success and Harriet is magnificent, wishing that there was "a courtly portraitist with... a chevalier's moustache, to record the fact".
But Harriet's "school of one's own" is more than philanthropy. It's the vehicle by which she can finally win her family's approval and achieve self-worth. The juxtaposition of time-frames means that, by the second chapter, we know that two years later the school is closed amid scandal. We also witness Harriet as a child attacked by her mother, her escape to a "peaceful" mental institution and the estrangement from her brother. Neglected and abused, Harriet in her need to create a microcosm of a happy, caring world becomes all the more poignant.
Boyt has studied Henry James and his stylistic influence is visible, both in the vibrant intensity of Harriet's character and the rich dramatisation of her consciousness. She also uses a Jamesian method of testing moral courage, for while Boyt usually bestows a happy ending, she has resisted one here to great effect.
The shadow of failure and scandal gives the book its emotional depth and ironic humour, and sets a tragic contrast to the sweetness of Harriet's character. However, there are smaller triumphs for our heroine: an acknowledgement from a former pupil that she was "really inspired", an understanding of her brother's cruelty, and a recognition that she has done something wonderful and may do so again.
In My Judy Garland Life, Boyt did what novelists rarely do and revealed the person behind the prose. It's impossible not to draw some similarities between the awkward, humble, witty Boyt in that memoir and Harriet - most strikingly in the optimism that, regardless of obstacle, there is always hope of better. Harriet's ultimate downfall doesn't stop us cheering her on, nor does it diminish her achievement.