In 1976, a Cambridge mathematician named Spencer Little travels to the Lake District for the summer, intending to work on the proof that will secure him a fellowship. He takes a job on the farm of Hartley and Mary Dodds, and finds a friend in their ten-year-old daughter Alice. It takes a while for the locals to warm to Spencer, but they do when he rescues Alice from a fire. Even then, however, life doesn’t begin to run smoothly, because Spencer gets caught up in the tensions between Alice and her father; the secret he left behind in Cambridge still haunts him; and he gains a new secret to keep when he falls in love in Cumbria.
Catherine Hall does two things particularly well in The Proof of Love, which combine to create the spine of the novel. The first of these is to evoke the rawness of life in her setting (with effectively precise description) and the way it has literally left its mark on the inhabitants (including Spencer, who starts off far more used to focusing on his mind than his body, and is made physically capable and stronger by the farm work). The second is to dramatise the conflict between different ways of life, as represented by the characters. This is not a straightforward case of intellectualism versus physicality; it’s more about showing how the farming lifestyle has taken over the Dodds family. Hartley reveals that he had the intelligence to go to university, but that path was closed off from him because he was required to inherit the farm; in his turn, he refuses to allow Alice to do anything that might open up new possibilities for her life—and the friction this causes is only exacerbated by the arrival of Spencer, who is emblematic of precisely such a different kind of life. (Spencer, of course, finds his own kind of freedom in the very life from which Alice dreams of escaping, thus highlighting the complexity of the situation.)
As the final page approaches, the sense increases that things are going to end badly. Hall deftly builds tension of the kind that comes from seeing the pieces of the story falling, but not knowing where they will land—and where they do land has both an inevitability and a final twist. The Proof of Love is tough on its characters, but rewarding for its readers.
David Hebblethwaite blogs at Follow the Thread.