Published by Corsair in Hardback in May 2012
Last night I slept deeply and dreamlessly, the sleep of angels. When I woke, I woke like Sleeping Beauty, as if I’d been quietly relieved of all the empty years. Mavis, my name came to me quite easily, but for a while I had no sure idea of my age. I might have been no more than a child, or as old as Auntie who lived in this cottage before I did. She was called Mavis too, incidentally, and a Gaunt by birth, as I am. Mavis Gaunt.
The few years Mavis Gaunt spent in the village of Shipleigh, Devon, as a wartime evacuee - away from London and her parents' loveless marriage - were sufficient for her to conceive of the place as a heavenly retreat. But it is not until her twenties, with nothing left to keep her in the city, that Mavis decides to head back. Frances, Tom and Robert Upcott are reclusive siblings from a local farm.
When Mavis returns to the village, she and Frances strike up an unlikely friendship. As they grow closer, Mavis is drawn into the sequestered life of the farm and begins at last to enjoy a sense of belonging. But a tragic sequence of events one winter's day is set to turn her heaven into a living hell. Mavis is seventy when Eve and her young son Archie turn up unexpectedly in the village. The tentative friendship that develops between them prompts Mavis to put together a collection of memories and treasures: her inventory. In revealing the truth of what happened at the Upcott farm, she is able to answer Eve's questions about the past, and in summoning them, finally to lay her own ghosts to rest.
An Inventory of Heaven is an exquisitely crafted and beautifully written novel. Narrated by 70 year old Mavis, we are deftly taken into Mavis’s claustrophobic world and see things mainly through her eyes. Sometimes a more authorial voice takes over and we are given access to other people’s thoughts but this is done smoothly and with subtlety.
Mavis has always been an outsider, even when with other people. She is awkward and socially inept. She keeps her head down and tries not to be seen. Yet she is never sorry for herself, just accepting of her loveless life. When she becomes friends with Frances Upcott, her life shines with yearned for but unexpected brightness.
Mavis takes us back and forth in time, to the war, to now, to the sixties and back again, in a way that is realistic of how memory works. The plot unravels with great skill but you have to work a little as the reader to fully appreciate this - a good thing as it engages you with the novel and makes you want to discover exactly what happened on that winter’s night at Upcott Farm many years ago. The section headings (poem titles of Larkin etc) give you a breather from this insular life in a small cottage in Shipleigh, a village so tiny and remote that no Sat Nav can find it. The imagery of the stuffed bird in its glass dome beautifully and macabrely reflects Mavis’s existence.
Being a Devonian I particularly love Feaver’s drawing of the landscape, the narrow lanes and high hedgerows, the all important weather, the wildlife, birdsong, smells, colours, textures. And her description of life in a rural community is Hardyesque in its other-worldly way. Her language and imagery are poetic, vivid, precise and rooted in nature. She chooses unusual verbs which make complete sense in the way she uses them. An original voice.
Frances, Mavis’s longed-for friend, is a great pianist. When she plays, Mavis is captivated. But Frances has to look after her fathers and brothers on the farm and her potential is limited. Frances, too, is trapped like Mavis. But Mavis, although her name means ‘songbird’, has no obvious talent apart from her typing.
This is a story of spurned love and humiliation set against a backdrop of boarding school, the sick room and the typing pool before Mavis hides herself away in deepest Devon. However, even the central dramatic tragedy is understated in such a way that we are left without being shocked, but with acceptance. This is life. And Mavis, finally, in her later years, is finding a way of dealing with this, through an unexpected connection to the next generations.
A book that will stay with me for a long time.