For the first time ever, I approached a book by Elizabeth Laird with more apprehension than excitement. Although I was born about twenty five years after the eponymous Charity, much of her young life is akin to mine. Like her, I was brought up in an evangelical Christian home by parents who practised what they preached. That home was, in fact, a manse, my Dad being a minister in a small presbyterian denomination – and his Church was in a small town in the north east of Scotland. So I was pretty much a marked girl at school. As with Charity I was seen as an oddity, particularly at secondary school, because of my Dad’s job and my own Church involvement.
I was concerned that Elizabeth’s book would mock what my parents held dear as I continue to do. But of course I needn’t have worried. And really I should be ashamed of myself for harbouring such fears, for I know Liz at least a little and she is not a woman to mock others for what they believe. But she is a writer who pushes her readers to question all manner of things and with that I can have no argument. In my view, that is the main thrust of this new book.
Charity is the youngest of the four Brown siblings and the only one living permanently at home. The family belongs to a small Christian sect called the Lucasites and they live by faith as Mr Brown is not paid for running a missionary society. So, when an elderly member of their congregation leaves his enormous and well-appointed house to Mr and Mrs Brown, the outward lives of them all are transformed. But the gift of the house does not change Charity’s father’s commitment to putting his beliefs into action: Gospel Fields is to be a retreat for the weary and heavy-laden.
The book is written in the first person and we see all the action through Charity’s eyes. She’s twelve and so naturally has an imperfect understanding of the world, including her immediate family. Throughout the book we see her struggling to comprehend her parents and her siblings, trying to understand how their upbringing, their beliefs and their actions hold together. Her world view is expanded by the guests who come to stay and the Jewish family living next door. All of these observations and experiences impact on Charity, and through the course of the book we see her gradually changing and realising that she can decide for herself what she believes and how she will put her beliefs into action. And she starts to see her extended family in a new light, as individuals who are also still learning how to live their best lives.
If all this sounds serious and worthy, that’s only part of the story. In parts it’s very funny indeed. Charity is an unreliable narrator, however truthful she intends to be. As the title of the book suggests, she often sees through a glass darkly and she is not fully known to herself any more than her family is. This results in some disillusionment for her, but also some very funny moments for the reader. As well as humour there is a warmth to the book. Elizabeth evokes a family who love and care for each other even if they don’t always hold the same views.
I firmly believe that Elizabeth Laird is one of the very best writers of the last fifty years. Her ability to tell a story engagingly and empathetically is as strong as ever. She is superb at conveying different settings in both time and space. But, for me, it is her skill at creating characters that sets her apart from the mass of good writers I have read in those fifty years. She doesn’t simply tell their stories; she immerses herself in their worlds so that they live as rounded, complete people with fears, loves, prejudices, dreams and gaps in understanding. And they develop as people believably, gradually and imperfectly as we all do.
Through Elizabeth Laird’s writing I have walked through Ethiopia, grieved for a sibling, tried to live in war-torn Palestine, become a refugee and been accused of witchcraft in seventeenth century Scotland. And now in The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown I have revisited my own childhood and given thanks once again for my parents. But this is a book for everyone. I have no knowledge of life as a street child in Ethiopia but I understood and enjoyed The Garbage King. By the same reckoning there is every reason for today’s young readers to enjoy this book. The past may be another country but it’s a fascinating one to explore in the company of Elizabeth Laird.