This is a coming-of-age novel by the wonderful and scrumptious Sophie Dahl. It tells of Kitty’s life with her fluctuant mother, Marina, and their somewhat bohemian life. It seems Kitty lives life in the idyllic lane: residing with her devoted grandparents, beautiful and talented mother, fun aunts, sweet little twin siblings, and doting nanny, in a homely country estate. She is a playful, happy eleven year old. But then her mother finds religion and she is whisked off to boarding school, and we slowly discover the extent of her mother’s instability.
At first, I thought Kitty’s experiences were based on Sophie‘s own childhood and teens – and maybe they generally are – however, as the novel progresses, we see some very disturbing aspects of Kitty’s life, leading me to hope that they are just in Sophie’s imagination. The book touches on some uncomfortable subjects, and reminds me of a novel I read some years ago called A Vision of Loveliness by Louise Levene: it traces the life of a 1960s teen – an aspiring model who immerses herself in a very seedy world of older men, rich man trapping, grooming and prostitution. Parts of the narrative gave me the same uncertain, sickly feeling, and I could have done without this.
This aside, I love the character of Kitty. She’s unassuming, level-headed and bright. You could imagine being friends with her at school – your reliable yet adventurous and quirky friend. She’s the mature one in the relationship between her and her mother. Marina, in contrast to Kitty, is flighty and spoilt. Rather than free-spirited, as we first assume, she is selfish and neglectful. She is not malicious or quarrelsome, and she clearly loves her children, yet she is needy and insecure, and this leads to some erratic and negative behaviour.
I must admit, I was curious to find out whether Sophie had inherited her grandfather, Roald’s, talent for writing and storytelling. Reader, she really has. She’s a fabulous author: clever and witty and knowing. She writes her hypnotic and humorous prose with ease and confidence, and her sassiness radiates through the pages.
Playing with the Grown-ups is not a plot driven novel and sometimes you wish there was more story to it. However, if like me, you fall on the side of great characters and writing over eventful storylines, then why not sit down with some coffee and cake and enjoy some time with the delicious Ms Dahl?
‘What turns you on?’ Laura Holl asked.
‘Oh you know, the usual things,’ Kitty said in the dark.
‘No, we don’t know, it’s specific to you, which is the whole point of the game. Don’t be a bad sport.’
‘Fine, well, OK, the usual things like that bit in Lady Chatterley, girls on page three who wear stockings and suspender belts, Seal and Adamski, that feeling you get when you go over a bridge, and um…trains.’
The silence felt infinitely longer in the dark.
‘Very strange, Kitty,’ Imogen said. ‘Very strange indeed.’