This was going to be a perfectly ordinary point-by-point review of Monica Dickens’ The Winds of Heaven, but as I began writing (or ranting), I realised that my intense dislike of the novel was colouring everything I was saying. I stopped to think about my negative attitude, and came to the conclusion that the novel isn’t bad per se, but I hated the main character so much that this made the entire reading experience unenjoyable. This is an unusual reaction for me, as I am the first person to complain when someone dismisses a perfectly good novel as rubbish because they couldn’t ‘relate’ to the main character. Liking the main character should be neither here nor there; we don’t read books, surely, to only meet fictional people we like. After all, some of the best characters in novels are horrific people, whose behaviour destroys those around them. Their malevolence is marvellous to read. I’ve read plenty of novels where the characters have belonged to a world completely alien to my own, and yet I have still been gripped by their experiences and fascinated by their outlook on life. I’ve read novels where I’ve hated everyone in it, but the writing has been so beautiful and the setting so haunting that I’ve been unable to put the book down regardless. Liking or relating to characters isn’t, in my opinion, as important as some people seem to think it is.
The writing in The Winds of Heaven is very good; humorous, warm and well observed, it draws the reader in from the very first page. The settings are those familiar, quintessentially mid century locations such as steamy Lyons’ tea rooms on foggy London street corners and mock tudor country houses with maid’s quarters and flower filled drawing rooms. The characters are interesting and varied, all living very different lives that reflect the rapidly changing social expectations of the time. It should have been Persephone gold. So why did I hate every minute of it? Was it because I hated the main character? Surely I couldn’t be so shallow a reader? Then it came to me; the reason why my hatred of the main character ruined the book for me was because I wasn’t supposed to hate her. Monica Dickens meant for me to empathise with her; poor, downtrodden Louise, shuffled from pillar to post, no independence, no freedom, left destitute by her nasty husband and unappreciated by her daughters, she is very much painted as an object of pity. I was incensed that I was supposed to pity a woman with no courage and no ingenuity. Her attitude towards her own life is one of passivity and apathy, and this is presented as entirely reasonable behaviour. Regardless of social expectations and so on, there is never any excuse to entirely abdicate responsibility for yourself. This is exactly what Louise does, and Monica Dickens wants us to like her for it?
My problem with The Winds of Heaven is that my own approach to life and my own moral code is entirely disconnected with that of Dickens’, and so no matter how good the writing, plot or setting, I couldn’t enjoy her book. If Louise had been presented as someone who needed a good kick up the behind, then I would have been perfectly happy. But she wasn’t, and there lay the problem. I can’t abide people who don’t make some attempt to overcome the difficulties of their own circumstances, and who spend their lives blaming others for their misfortune. I don’t think there’s ever an excuse for living a life you don’t want; we all have choices, and we all have the power to change our lives. Some have fewer choices, and some have more difficult obstacles to navigate, but courage is free and available to all, and those who don’t use it get no sympathy from me. I was disappointed that Monica Dickens advocated Louise’s approach to life, and agreed that it was impossible for her to change things on her own. I thought I was going to like Dickens very much, but my rather battered copy of The Winds of Heaven, which got thrown against my bedroom wall, proves otherwise. Despite initially thinking it was because I couldn’t ‘relate’ to the characters, it’s actually because I can’t relate to the author. I think that’s a first for me!