The joy of libraries is that you can try any book at no cost. When I was younger I used to take full advantage of this and read widely from virtually every section of the shelves. There was no financial risk in this and because you could take out many books and bring them back when you wanted to get more I didn’t even inconvenience myself if I gave up on a book. It was this freedom which allowed me to read outside the genres that my parents favoured and to try authors such as Kipling. It was also very useful because there is no other way I could have funded my voracious reading habit when I was a teenager.
Many years ago, and I am not exactly sure when, I came across the books of Jane Duncan in a libarary. I have never seen these books in any shop, even when they were in print, and none of the volumes I own are new as I have purchased them from various second hand book websites over the years and from sales at local libraries. I have never read any reviews or blogs about them either but nevertheless I have continued to reread the books over the years and am doing so again at present.
These books are semi-autobiographical and each title begins “My Friend” or “My Friends”. Over time they tell the story of the life of Janet Sandison, born in a small Scottish village in 1910 who lives on a croft and has a strong connection to the Scottish Highlands and the place of her childhood which is important in all the stories. Eventually Janet moves away, marries and lives on a Caribbean island (fictionalised as St Jago) where her husband is an engineer in the sugar industry in the 1950s. Each story concentrates on a friend or friends of Janet’s, although some of them cannot truly be described that way, and tells how they link in with Janet at various times of her life. Some of the books stretch over many years and some tell just about one incident. As you read through the books, and there are nineteen of them, you come to know Janet and her family and friends very well and also to watch them change and adapt to new circumstances over time.
My Friend Flora is the seventh of the series. It starts with Janet on her first day of school and how she takes notice of the local Smith family and especially the daughter Flora who is a little older than she is.. The book then re-enters Flora’s story at various eventful points when Janet or her family are involved in some way. Flora has to leave school when her mother dies, becomes the housekeeper for her terrible father, deals with the difficulty of having a sister who is severely learning disabled and then has to cope with the death of various family members and the prospect of bringing up a new generation. At every time in her life Flora’s circumstances are compared with Janet’s as she leaves home and takes jobs, and with Janet’s young Aunt Kate who also feels that she has to stay to look after the family and who bitterly resents it. The book is desperately sad in places but explores family expectations for women over the twentieth century in a subtle way.
Jane Duncan is a writer of her generation and the words and attitudes used to describe the learning disabled sister are not what we would use. They are, however, very true to their time and to the upbringing of the characters. In later books when she explores the relationships between white and black people in the Caribbean the same thing applies although I think that this author was probably questioning received opinion more than others.
I enjoy these books a lot. They are well structured and the author obviously knows and understands the locations and communities about which she writes. The books are amusing in places although the author does try and tackle real life issues – Flora, for example, actually has a terrible life because of the brutality of her father and her brothers have it even worse. Janet is an engaging person to spend time with and all the books are written in her voice. I don’t think that these are overlooked classics but I do think that they have a lot to offer the reader.