Miss Brandon, in both voice and appearance, gave the impression of being a successful woman of the world, both critical and self-assured; not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her home an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house. Louise felt suddenly ill at ease.
An exhausted mother, trying to manage her two boisterous young girls and new baby while keeping her irritable husband placated and her home running somewhat smoothly, finds her already unstable world spinning out of control when she rents a room to a mysterious woman with a deadly agenda.
- There is a creeping suspense stalking Louise as she becomes more and more convinced that her new tenant is dangerous, but no one believes her. Not her husband, Mark, though he does admit the new tenant looks familiar for some reason. Not her neighbors, who murmur that poor Louise is so frazzled and tired she’s going to pieces. And not her friends, who suspect Louise is jealous of Miss Brandon’s burgeoning camaraderie with Mark over Greek literature, possibly because their discussions often happen upstairs in the privacy of Miss Brandon’s rented room.
- Subtle but revealing observations pepper the narrative. Nurse Frodham at the Infant Welfare Clinic is tolerant, but her patience with a mother when her child began to wail “became so intense that one could no longer meet her eyes nor remember what one was trying to say”. Children, like cats, “have an unerring instinct for the person who most wants to avoid them, and they cling and clamber on that person with relentless and unsnubbable devotion”. A conversation has “voices comfortably rising and falling, continually, like gusts of day-long rain with no stir of change.”
The Hours Before Dawn was Fremlin’s debut novel and won the Edgar Award in 1960. From the first line of the novel, Fremlin seems eager to put her reader on edge: “I’d give anything—anything—for a night’s sleep.” With these words, the reader is pulled into the chaos that is Louise’s life: Her baby won’t sleep, meaning she never sleeps, and it’s causing difficulties in bonding with him the way a mother should. Her husband, Mark, is extremely boorish (although his behavior was the norm in a time when wives were expected to take care of the children, the husband, the shopping, the housecleaning, the washing…pretty much everything, all with a smile and cheery attitude). Her neighbor constantly lectures her on how loud her family is, and another mother keeps roping Louise into babysitting her kid. There is no support network for Louise to lean on, no family to help out. She is alone, yet surrounded by people that all want something from her. When Miss Brandon arrives asking to rent the family’s extra room, Louise is too preoccupied to even check the woman’s references, something which she will very much regret later.
There is something intoxicating about Fremlin’s writing. It rambles. It flows. It moves across the page with the speed of a spider, all eight eyes trained on a trapped fly. Is it dated? Perhaps, but if a reader goes in with an understanding of the era in which the novel was written, it’s a joy to read. Louise may seem a bit of a pushover, cowing down to everyone else (at one point, she recalls that when Miss Brandon first called to inquire about the room, Louise envisioned her new tenant as an older woman who had “learned slowly and painfully—or maybe proudly, and with undefeated courage—to accept without complaint all the numerous small discomforts that life brought her way”…possibly a kindred spirit?), but she is not. There is a strength in being able to pick up and handle all the problems shoved her way; without Louise, her thankless family would fall into tatters. The sleep deprivation, the inner strength, the increasing suspicion of Miss Brandon, all of these make Louise a fascinating character to follow.
Just under 200 pages, this is a swift read. One good sitting should do it.