I have become a Rebecca West fan. The Fountain Overflows is a marvelously moving and entertaining read. I really had no idea what to expect when I picked the book up, knowing little about West or the novel beyond the fact that several bloggers recommended her. What I found is a novel with a captivating voice.
It’s about a family around the turn of the century – 19th to 20th – that is unconventional, musical, and troubled. The father is recognized as a great writer, but he gambles away any money he earns and doesn’t know how to make people happy and keep a job – and he isn’t interested in learning how. The mother had a promising career as a pianist earlier in her life, but now spends her time and energy caring for her family and teaching two of her daughters how to play. There are four children; the eldest, Cordelia, plays the violin and hopes for a professional career although the rest of the family is convinced that she has no talent. There are twins, Mary and Rose, and it is Rose who tells the story, writing as an adult looking back on her childhood. And then there is Richard Quin, the youngest, who has many talents, including a brilliant imagination and an uncanny ability in one so young to smooth out social awkwardness.
Although the story is clearly told from an adult perspective, I often forgot and thought I was hearing Rose’s voice as a child. One of the things I found so captivating about the novel is the way the narrator switches so easily and seamlessly from one mode to another: from what seems to be a child’s voice telling the story as it happens to the adult’s view of a childhood long gone by. When we are in the story, as opposed to getting adult commentary on the story, the novel’s language isn’t childlike exactly, but it does seem to be what Rose would be thinking and saying as a child and the language is such that I could imagine a precocious child using it.
Rose and her siblings are truly captivating characters. The children have witnessed and experienced much uncertainty and trouble, and they do their best to make sense of their situation, and the three youngest children, at least, cling together, comfort each other, and in many ways behave like adults, trying to take care of their mother, who can be more childlike than the children:
We were beginning to understand that Mamma would in some respects always be younger than we were, perhaps because she had not had as trying a childhood as we had had, and that for her sake we had sometimes to treat her with positive low cunning, to get round the fact that she was supposed to be older than us in all ways instead of just a few.
They are future artists in training, devoting themselves to their music. They are also social misfits, partly because of their unconventional family history, partly because of their eccentricity. This is true for everyone except Cordelia; while the younger children take their isolation and their social ostracization as a natural state, Cordelia fights against it.
I often laughed as I read about the children’s imaginations, their games, and made-up stories. And the description of the tight-knit family bond, at least among the mother and the three younger children, was moving – it’s enough to make you want to be a part of this family, as troubled as it is. But most of all, the pleasure of this book lies in following Rose’s childhood – and adult – attempts to make sense of her world. I didn’t want to leave the company of her intelligent, imaginative, passionate mind.