Harriet, our heroine, is a tall, awkward, wealthy woman, ‘Miss Havisham on wheels’ as she describes herself. We first encounter her leaving her shrink, apparently cured after seven years of therapy, and determined to found a nursery school that will supply all the love and creativity her own childhood lacked. A lavishly appointed, child-centred place for imaginative, sensitive and (it goes without saying) rich little girls, it has a fabulous doll’s house, a vegetable garden, cookery lessons and even a gypsy wagonette in the garden. We also know, pretty early on, that the school will only last for two years before disaster strikes. How this comes about, and why Harriet is so damaged, form the twin engines of the plot.
Susie Boyt has always been good at depicting how easily sensitive children can be crushed or misunderstood by their families, but The Small Hours, her fifth novel, is a giant leap forward in both style and command of her subject. Her bestselling memoir, My Judy Garland Life, gave us some