My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Daniel & Esther is rather brilliant. I came across it after doing a post on children’s books set in and around Dartington Hall. I have a personal connection to this place (it’s where I attended university) and it was, in summary, amazing. Insular, rural, and obnoxiously creative, Dartington was another (wondrous, wondrous) world.
Daniel and Esther is a slim, strange, little novel. It’s understated, quiet, and it’s so very beautiful. It’s a story that, in a way, is about everything and nothing all at the same time. Set at Dartington Hall school, a progressive artistic unusual school, and in the time leading up to the second world war, it tells the story of Daniel and his love for Esther, a fellow pupil.
It’s underwritten. Beautifully, almost poetically, so. “Both of us had come to a stop. I let my shoulder fall another inch nearer and she did the same. A moment later our shoulders were just touching, as if they’d drifted together in a crowd. We stayed like that for a long time. Neither of us was frightened any more. The minutes crept past like giants on tiptoe until I lost count of time”.
And yet, even with this level of textual restraint, this nuanced near-mournful sense of the moment and love of the pastoral, Daniel and Esther has a curiously heavy impact. It is elegiac at points, and bitterly aware of the impending war. The idyllic warmth and innocence of Dartington cannot continue in such circumstances and, somewhat fittingly, Raymond resists the temptation of providing a neat and convenient ending.
This book, I fear, may haunt me. The love, the heat and the intense power of this near-illusory book combine to create an awkward, unsure narrative that punches deeper and harder than it seems to initially deliver.