Reviews /

The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown

Authored by Elizabeth Laird
Published by Macmillan

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If you’re looking for a gentle, beautifully written and witty book to take on your holidays then you won’t go far wrong with Elizabeth Laird’s The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown – you might, once you’ve devoured it, even pass it on to the children! The fabulous title in itself drew me in and following Charity Brown as she subtly begins to question the traditions and beliefs of her family, was an absolute treat.

Set just after the Second World War, the Brown family are surprised to suddenly inherit the large country house, Gospel Fields, in which they plan to do God’s work and open it up to those in need. The family take in guests who broaden not only Charity’s horizons but her parents’ and neighbours’ too; these include a German man, Mr Fischer, who had spoken out against the Nazis, and an Indian student, Kurian, who has been mistreated by a racist London landlady. The novel further champions inclusivity as Charity also befriends Rachel next door who happens to be a Jewish refugee. The friendship between Charity and Rachel is carefully crafted as the two struggle initially to work out their different heritages and assumptions about each other, learning of course as they go, that they have much in common. By the end, in a celebratory, chaotic, and climactic curry – cooked (at his request) by Kurian, attended by the whole family, the new in laws and Rachel next door, Charity turns to Rachel to observe ‘I’ve just understood one of life’s eternal truths. Everyone, absolutely everyone in the whole world, is embarrassed by their parents.’  Parents, for the young, it seems are the great leveller! This text demonstrates that extending your house or dinner table to those from different walks of life will inevitably benefit all. Like many historical novels the values instilled are as timely as ever and many modern parallels could make for fruitful classroom discussion.

This is a historical novel, a country house novel and of course, a coming-of-age novel, and it is this latter part that really shines here. As she matures, Charity, our narrator, the youngest of four who is also recovering from polio, gradually and subtly begins to question all that she had thought true and for readers this is a thing to behold. ‘I felt shaken to my bones. A missionary had turned out to be as bad as a Nazi. Mr Fischer seemed to think Christians were not better than anyone else. Dad was having doubts about – what? And to cap it all a vile seducer had invaded out home and was going to carry off my own sister. My brain was full.’ The narration and characterisation in this text is joyful and by the conclusion I was sorry to close the page on the families and characters who I felt I knew so well. This is a novel to cherish, read it to your children, buy copies for your siblings, aunts and uncles, for while in some ways it is pure escapism in others its values are as timely as ever.