1960s London Comes Alive in a Fierce, Funny Coming-of-Age Novel


From the first page of this clever, fishy little novel, our narrator, Sophie, is the kind of woman whose laughter is a weapon. She could scare off an assailant with one well-timed whack of her tongue. Originally published in 1972, “The Halt During the Chase” is the second Rosemary Tonks novel to be reissued by New Directions in as many years, bringing a new audience to her charming and imperfect heroines, who are all voice, half poetry and half snarl.

Sophie is a modern woman of snobbish English upbringing who is searching for herself in swinging 1960s London, attending lectures on Eastern philosophy and spirituality. At 31, she’s still stuck in a codependent, push-and-pull relationship of care-versus-cruelty with her mother, which she’s desperate to escape by marrying Philip, the boring but beautiful bureaucrat she’s been in love with since childhood.

Those plans are wrenched, though, by Philip’s “proposal of non-marriage, half-baked and half-hearted,” setting Sophie on a confused but decisive new path — like a drunk person walking determinedly down a hallway, running into the walls while calling out “I’m fine!” — in an attempt to save her dignity and move on from Philip and her mother at once. So Sophie’s marriage-chasing reaches its titular halt, transforming into a more inward sort of chase, as she explores “the natural tendency of my mind, which I had suppressed in the past, thinking that it was selfish.”

Rosemary TonksCredit…Michael Peters

There is a certain hipness to Sophie’s spiritual, Eastern-inspired strivings as she seeks to start a new life, but that doesn’t render them false. It may be unclear to a reader what actually happens at the lectures she attends, but their impact on Sophie is tangible in her descriptions of her feelings afterward, and audible in the weird tinkle of Tonks’s writing: “On the evenings when I walked to the lectures with him, everything had the safety and permanence of objects in my childhood. The world had violin-cases (in which blocks of amber rosin knocked about) and fishing rods in it again.” Even at her lowest moments, Sophie’s voice maintains the chipperness of a country-house docent.

And yet she has a mean streak, too. Sophie recalls her boarding school years: “Anything awkward was ridiculed out of existence, and lost its cutting edge.” This memory might as well be Sophie’s creed. It’s what she does throughout the novel, tearing herself and others down. This unsparing sense of humor — which in Tonks’s novel “The Bloater,” reissued last year,could often read as jadedness — reads more powerfully here because it is rooted in the deep throbs and pangs of youthful emotion. Something Tonks understood in “The Halt During the Chase” is that it’s just as embarrassing to be anybody else as it is to be a young woman: It’s humiliating to be human, full stop.

Eventually, the champagne-crispness of Sophie’s voice, which has so far beenthe story, goes a bit flat, as escapades to Brighton and then Normandy beggar a bare-bones plot. Other characters drive these uneven scenes forward, helping Sophie along her journey to selfhood and Philip on his journey to hunt Sophie down: There is the spiritual leader of the lectures, as well as Philip’s quirky, doting godmother; there are precocious French children to be tended to; there is a psychic.

Despite those shifts in geography and the ever-expanding cast, it’s Sophie’s haunted relationship with her mother, and the ways that relationship reprises itself when she’s with Philip, that give her story life. The power that parents can exert, and the confusions of loyalty, tenderness and rancor a child feels toward them, are rendered compassionately but with humor. Of Sophie’s mother, Tonks writes, “Other noses turned into doughnuts when she put her chiseled nose down near them,” and basking in her charisma “was like being at the secret center of the woods.” At the same time, Sophie thinks, “She had no status, no cause, no bosom, no money; she was just a mother.” But when it shows up — even fleetingly — Sophie’s empathy rings as beautifully on the page as her disdain.

Tonks, who died in 2014, never published another novel after “The Halt During the Chase,” and she later joined a fundamentalist religious group and renounced her literary works. She would probably be displeased to see New Directions reissuing her novels. But whatever it was in Tonks that led to her own spiritual seeking is alive and well in Sophie in this bubbly, empathetic and ultimately lovely novel of a belated coming-of-age.

Mary Marge Locker is a staff editor in Opinion Audio at The Times.

THE HALT DURING THE CHASE | By Rosemary Tonks | New Directions | 218 pp. | Paperback, $17.95

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