Girl With Dove: A Life Built By Books review – lost in the fog of childhood trauma

Literature helped the young Sally Bayley survive, but there is a yawning gap at the heart of her book

Sally Bayley, a writer who teaches at Oxford University, grew up in a filthy and dilapidated house in a Sussex seaside town (Worthing, I think, though I can’t be wholly sure; as she notes herself, facts are thin on the ground in her book) with her mother, several younger siblings, an aunt, and her grandmother, Edna May Turner, AKA Maze. Men were not really permitted to enter this realm, though occasionally one might visit. A bloke called Laurie, for instance, who seems to have been Bayley’s father, once briefly appeared on the horizon; the family trooped out to the Beach hotel with him, where they had grapefruit as a starter. In the end, though, her mother, Ange, sent him packing, furious not only at his failure to provide financially for her and the children, but also clearly reluctant to give up her strange autonomy, a fiery but miserable-seeming independence that combined a certain kind of determination with unfathomable neglect – not only of her home, but of her children, too.

Were Girl With Dove a fairy story, Ange might be the wicked witch; inasmuch as she is described, we have the sense of something malevolent in her. But Bayley’s book is not a fairy story. It’s a memoir, and so we must ponder why Ange behaves as she does, obsessing over things that don’t matter – her roses, the importance of elocution – yet failing to feed her family. Is she ill? Unstable? Depressed?

It certainly starts with depression. Bayley tells us early on that one day in the long, hot summer of 1976, her brother David “disappeared”, after which her mother went to bed for “a very long time”. But what happened after this? It seems that Ange got involved in some kind of religious cult. Sinister types moved in, among them the Woman Upstairs, and something bad happened to a woman called Poor Sue. Hippies could regularly be found about the place, looking for God.

How did Bayley, a clever and noticing child, cope with this? Encouraged by her Dylan Thomas-declaiming mother, she took up reading, escaping into books, though hers wasn’t a regular infatuation with paperbacks. The characters she loved – among them Miss Marple, Jane Eyre and Betsey Trotwood from David Copperfield – were soon as real to her as Ange, her Aunt Di and Maze. She could look round, and there they would be, clear as day.

In Girl With Dove, Bayley tells the story of her chaotic childhood through the prism of the books that helped her survive it. Except that she doesn’t, really. Round and round she goes, repeating ad infinitum those scant details she is willing to tell us, while stubbornly avoiding the basic facts: all the things the reader really wants to know, the scaffolding on which most other writers would have built their narrative. Given that this is a memoir, that leaves a yawning gap at the heart of her book, space she then fills with voices: her own childhood voice, those of her peculiar, hectoring and wilfully blind relatives, and those of Miss Marple et al, who stroll across the page so nonchalantly you begin to worry you’re going slightly mad. Where are we now, you think. Is this Sussex or St Mary Mead?

She’s also apt frequently to quote from her favourite novels, something that tends to work against her. Reading some unimprovably lovely and moving lines from David Copperfield – “I have an impression on my mind … of the touch of Peggotty’s forefinger as she used to hold it out to me, and of its being roughened by needlework, like a pocket nutmeg grater” – I longed to pick up that great novel again rather than to struggle on with her story, which made me feel like I was walking in thick fog.

Struggle on I did though, and so it was that I reached the best, the saddest and the most horrifying part of her book, in which Bayley describes how, feeling odd and floaty and clearly halfway starving (the children survived for much of the time on little more than toasted cheese), she goes alone to see a doctor, at which point the social services get involved. The scene in which a social worker, Audrey, tries to explain Bayley’s loneliness and isolation to her mother and aunt – the very women who have caused it – is vividly drawn and truly horrifying, the two of them turning hard and snarling in as many minutes as it takes her to mention the importance of family meals.

It’s not the interfering Audrey, however, who must bear the full weight of their ire, for all that by now Ange has some kind of infatuation with Mrs Thatcher. It’s Bayley they send to Coventry, and it’s Bayley who is attacked by the Woman Upstairs. When she is taken away in an ambulance, a mere feather of a child, and later pitches up in a children’s home, no one seems to care. They’ll provide all the signatures the social workers need. They’re glad to see the back of her.

There is a remarkable story here. On the jacket of Girl With Dove, beneath a picture of the adult Bayley in a red felt hat, her head bent over a book, we’re told that she is the first person from the West Sussex council care system to have studied at university. The reader – well, this reader, at any rate – wants to know more about this, and also about what happened to Ange and co after Bayley left their unhappy coven, with its sludgy baths and sticky floors. Did she see her siblings again? Her grandmother?

I understand, in a world where memoirs about reading are currently 10 a penny, the need for singularity in terms of voice – and Bayley’s is nothing if not that. I grasp, too, her desire to get as close to her childhood self as possible, the better to animate the unique intensity of reading as a child, an experience Graham Greene described in his essay The Lost Childhood as a form of fortune-telling (in later life, Greene said, we often find in books a confirmation of what is in our mind already, whereas in childhood, “all books are books of divination, telling us about the future”). But someone should have taken this narrative in hand; I read it with a sense that all of its potential power had been dimmed, subsumed into something at once too indulgent and too coy.

How much greater and more successful it would have been had the haze periodically cleared, had Bayley’s adult voice sometimes rung out, clear and true.

• Girl With Dove by Sally Bayley is published by William Collins (£14.99). To order a copy for £12.74 go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99


Rachel Cooke

The GuardianTramp

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