“What a lovely cake,” said Lorna. She felt tears pricking her eyes: all this love, this cake being made by a devoted trio, for someone who did not deserve it.
Lorna Gibson knows she isn’t like other people. She can’t stand to be touched or share her emotions with anyone. The dentist she works for is confused by Lorna: “She’s repressed, I suppose, but I thought no one was nowadays.”
Deep inside, Lorna wants the same things as anyone else—friends, a husband, children. The closest she can get is by watching her neighbors, living vicariously through glimpses of their lives. The Titmusses are her favorite family, the one she most longs to be a part of. When something happens to June Titmuss that could change her life forever, of course Lorna sees the whole thing. And of course Lorna would do anything to protect this family. Anything.
The Small Hours of the Morning is an intense psychological crime novel that shows how seemingly unimportant moments in ordinary lives can build to an explosion. Every day, Lorna and her neighbors are making choices large and small that tie all of them together with invisible threads; none of them, absorbed in their own problems, notice the others until it is too late. Robbery, adultery, and murder are only a few of the consequences.
Perhaps the trouble all begins when a depositor is mugged outside the bank, a most unusual event for such a peaceful community. The fleeing robber knocks over elderly Mrs. Malmesbury and June Titmuss comes to the old lady’s aid. That’s how she meets Ted Jessop. June can’t help contrasting the handsome young hired-car driver with her husband Cecil, who spends his spare time building models of cathedrals out of matchsticks.
June married Cecil on the rebound; a decade on, she’s feeling stifled by the very security and predictability that was once so appealing. Not yet thirty, June whiles away her long days by entering contests, taking evening classes, and, when her husband permits it, working part-time at a florist’s shop. She is close to a breaking point, unnoticed by all but Lorna. Meanwhile, the robberies continue unabated, growing more and more violent.
Ironically, it is when she begins crossing the line from fantasy to reality that new, healthier possibilities open up for Lorna. To carry out her plans, she must face her deepest fears, pushing herself to engage with others in a way she never dreamed she could. A visit to the injured Mrs. Malmesbury throws a scare into her, as she realizes that “the old lady had nothing to do but wait for death. And nor had she, at twenty-nine. Lorna Gibson, spinster, had no life of her own and no aim except to gaze from a window at the life of another, and wish herself part of it.” But there are other visits, growing easier each time, not only to Mrs. Malmesbury, but also to her coworker Nancy, local author Peter Guthrie, and, most daring of all, to Cecil and June Titmuss themselves. Lorna’s world is expanding, and she finds that she can function within it—if not brilliantly, at least adequately. Will Lorna be able to craft a new life for herself, or is it already too late to escape her obsession?
Lorna thinks of herself as a meticulous schemer when, in fact, she rarely plans more than one step ahead and is often too easily rattled to even carry that out. Her scenes are unbearably tense because, despite having access to her thoughts, it’s impossible to guess what she has in mind or what she’s capable of. The robber is a different matter. In some ways he is a photo negative of Lorna, acting out of greed rather than love, and easily able to hide his disturbed psyche beneath a superficial charm. His scenes are suspenseful because it’s perfectly clear what he is capable of: anything.
The strength of the book is how disturbingly easy it is for fantasies of stalking and violence to coexist alongside the more mundane, but often just as worrisome, problems of everyday life. These characters are full of contradictions. The treacherous June is also a genuinely nice person, who misbehaves out of boredom rather than malice. Her complacent husband Cecil is actually more perceptive than he appears.
Later, waiting for the traffic lights to change, he mused on the fact that you married because you wanted to share your life with a particular person; then you saw very little of them, for you shared most of your waking hours with those you worked among. You went home to eat, sleep, read the paper and follow your hobby; you could know less about how your family spent the day than about someone who meant nothing to you but happened to share the office…It was all so sad; no one could have a relationship with another person which touched at every point, however deeply committed; one could only make the most of every fleeting moment.
Various townspeople cycle in and out of the action, and part of the fun is trying to guess how different characters will come together. A particular source of comic relief is Peter Guthrie, the mild-mannered author of macho historical novels who aspires to be more like his hero Gadsby. No one ever seems to react to this local celebrity in quite the way he would wish.
“That Gadsby of yours doesn’t like [women] very much,” said Ted.
“He does! He’s always involved with some woman or other,” said Guthrie, amused at this criticism.
“Oh, he likes what they’re for, to his way of thinking,” Ted allowed. “But it’s all one-way, isn’t it? Gadsby’s only thinking of himself and what he’ll get out of it. He never thinks about the bird and what’s in it for her.”
“Well—no, I suppose he doesn’t,” said Guthrie. “But does any man?”
In The Small Hours of the Morning, almost everyone is out for themselves. The tragedy is that their desires are so modest. Most of the citizens of this pleasant, prosperous town are leading lives of quiet desperation, much of it self-inflicted. Only a few are willing to act upon that desperation to seize what they want. Only a few realize that their perfect town is built of matchsticks, ready to burst into flames at any moment.
I really enjoyed the almost gentle unfolding of what is an exploration of the psyche of a number of characters as their actions reveal to the reader what they have managed to keep hidden from their nearest and dearest. This is a book that has a slow burn, as I got wrapped up in the characters lives.
The Small Hours of the Morning is out of print in the US, and is available as an ebook in the UK from Little, Brown.