Scottish writer Shena Mackay published her first novel in 1967 and has been prolific since then, producing such catchy titles as "Dreams of Dead Women's Handbags'" and "A Bowl of Cherries." Her most recent novel, "The Orchard on Fire," was shortlisted for this year's Booker Prize. So how come we haven't heard more about her? She's virtually unknown in the United States, and none of her books (except her first) had even been published here until Moyer Bell, a small press based in Rhode Island, began issuing her backlist a few years ago.
One reason for this neglect may be that Mackay's sensibility is so distinctly British. Unlike most Americans, who still believe in a Horatio Alger world of limitless social mobility and individuals making their own destinies, Mackay's characters often seem trapped by a rigid class system and low expectations. The narrator of "The Orchard on Fire," April Harlency, tells us "My parents, Percy and Betty Harlency, were brought up in the licensed trade and met and married in that profession. After Percy's demob from the Catering Corps, we lived above a series of public houses which time has condensed into one bleak establishment."
The story takes place in 1953, when April is eight. Her parents have given up their London pub and are trying to make a better life running a tearoom in a small town. April's horizons expand on her first day in Stonebridge when she meets Ruby, the fiery red-headed daughter of the local publicans. The two girls soon create their own world, one beautifully described by Mackay, in an abandoned railway car at the end of a private orchard. Inevitably, of course, reality intrudes, in the form of Mr. Greenidge, a member of the local gentry and regular customer at the struggling tearoom, who molests April (mildly, but regularly). Mackay conveys April's fear so starkly thatthe reader feels as trapped as April.
At the beginning and end of the novel we meet a grown-up April, who lives alone in London and works as a teacher. Most books about smart, observant children leave us with a feeling of hope, because no matter how harsh their childhoods were we can predict an adult life in which their strength of character will bring them happiness. But April doesn't seem happy. She has escaped the licensed trades, but her childish ebullience is gone. Mackay is too truthful a writer to let us fantasize a fate for April that just won't happen.