God on the Rocks

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It is with great pleasure that Europa Editions makes this Booker Prize short-listed novel newly available to the legions of Gardam fans.

Originally published in Great Britain in 1978, the novel describes Margaret Marsh's coming of age one summer between the world wars. Caught in the backwash of a fervently religious father, a mother bitterly nostalgic for what might have been, the tea and sympathy of some thoroughly secular neighbors and the bawdy jokes of her nanny Lydia, ...

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God on the Rocks

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It is with great pleasure that Europa Editions makes this Booker Prize short-listed novel newly available to the legions of Gardam fans.

Originally published in Great Britain in 1978, the novel describes Margaret Marsh's coming of age one summer between the world wars. Caught in the backwash of a fervently religious father, a mother bitterly nostalgic for what might have been, the tea and sympathy of some thoroughly secular neighbors and the bawdy jokes of her nanny Lydia, Margaret's world hurtles towards a shattering moment of truth. Drama, tragedy and a touch of farce lend themselves to Gardam's typically eloquent prose. With subtlety and precision, God on the Rocks provides an intimate portrait of the tensions that divide men and women, present and past, and the love and sorrow that lingers throughout.

Jane Gardam's reputation in the United States has been greatly enlarged by the critical acclaim and commercial success garnered by her latest novels, last year's Man in the Wooden Hat and her masterpiece Old Filth. Now, newcomers and fans alike can enjoy the pleasure of the splendid writing that established Gardam's considerable canon some four decades ago.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
American readers first turned on to Gardam via Old Filth are in for a surprise with the witty though decidedly more serious story of Margaret Marsh, who comes of age in interwar England. Margaret grows up the only child in an oppressively religious household, and her world gets a much-needed shaking up when her mother, Ellie, has another child and hires a maid, the bawdy but loving Lydia. Lydia immediately begins taking Margaret on day trips that open her eyes to the way others live. Margaret's father, Kenneth, meanwhile, sees Lydia as a laboratory for his Godly work, though he ends up being a less than ideal practitioner of the moral lifestyle he preaches. Then there's Ellie, whose reintroduction to a long-lost love tempts her down the path of what might have been. It all leads to a precipice of disillusion for Margaret regarding her parents' behavior, shattering her perceptions and leading to tragedy. Gardam doesn't waste a word, and the story reads as fresh and relevant now as when it was originally published in Great Britain in 1978. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Things are coming apart at the seams for Margaret Marsh during one cataclysmic season in her eight-year-old life. Born between the wars and brought up by her Holy Roller father and his compliant wife as a "Primal Saint" to eschew entertainments and to memorize and recite Bible chapter and verse, Margaret is in rebellion. With the arrival of a new baby in the household, her parents have hired the bawdy and buxom Lydia to help at home and escort Margaret on seaside outings, during which she encounters some eccentric residents of a home for the elderly and insane. At the same time, her mother renews the acquaintance of her childhood friends Binkie and Charles, from whom she'd been estranged since she went to work at the post office and they left for Cambridge. Both new and old acquaintances come together to shake up the once ordered lives of the Marshes. VERDICT Published in the United Kingdom in 1978 and only briefly available here, this Booker nominee will appeal to readers who love the Penelopes (Fitzgerald and Lively) as well as Gardam's more recent novels, like Faith Fox and Old Filth. This treasure should send them back for all her books. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 7/10.]—Barbara Love, Kingston Frontenac P.L., Ont.
Nancy Kline
…so charming a novel that you don't want to give away a single one of the many twists of its plot…We are in the hands of a master story-teller. Over the course of the novel, Gardam gives us the past and present of her characters' lives, zooming in and out of their diverse perspectives…Thoroughly opaque to one another, and often to themselves, Gardam's characters behave as extravagantly as their Dickensian names would suggest. And yet they're completely credible because they so resemble our most beloved friends and relations.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781933372761
  • Publisher: Europa
  • Publication date: 10/26/2010
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jane Gardam

Jane Gardam has twice won the Whitbread Award, for The Hollow Land, and Queen of the Tambourine. She is also the author of God on the Rocks, which was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and most recently, Faith Fox.

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First Chapter


By Jane Gardam

Europa editions

Copyright © 1978 Jane Gardam
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-933372-76-1

Chapter One

Because the baby had come, special attention had to be given to Margaret, who was eight. On Wednesdays therefore she was to go out with Lydia the maid for the whole afternoon. Wherever Lydia liked. So long as Margaret's mother knew of course where that was.

Lydia said, the first Wednesday, that she had thought of the train. Maybe to Eastkirk-and a nice walk about on the Front and down the woodland. Margaret's mother said that Eastkirk meant money and the sands were better here at home, but Lydia said that Margaret would like the woods.

Teacakes were thus buttered and twirled in a paper bag and Lydia and Margaret took a train to Saltbeach and changed on to the single track line to Eastkirk and went slowly, see-sawing from side to side in the dusty coach with blinds with buttoned ends and a stiff leather strap arched like a tongue on the carriage door. The material on the carriage seat was black with red birds and very coarse and hard. There were two pictures above each long narrow seat on either side of a blotchy mirror. One picture was usually of Bexhill and the other of Bournemouth. They were sleepy, comfortable, upper-class places, decidedly foreign. The train stopped once on the way to Eastkirk, and through the open window you could hear the sea faintly breathe, at long intervals, below the cliff for the single track line ran close to its edge. Gulls stood about the platform or skimmed low, level over the distant cliff edge and the stationmaster's fine geraniums.

Margaret loved Lydia-or at any rate she loved the look of Lydia, sleepy and sunny like the pictures, with a huge fizz of yellow hair. Lydia had on, this first Wednesday, a dress of royal blue sateen with little red and yellow flowers, a bolero to match, high-heeled shoes and shiny silk stockings the colour of very ripe corn. She smoked a cigarette and held it in her bright red lips. When she took it out the cigarette had a pattern of fine red lines fanning together at the end. Lydia's thighs were broad and heavy under the silk dress, soft and flattened out on the red and black seat.

The sun blazed through the carriage window-it was a remarkable summer-hot as Bexhill or Bible countries. Lydia jerked about with the blind, fixing it first in one little sneck and then another, finally pulling it right to the bottom and pressing the button into the little brass hole. But still the sun shone in from the other windows across her lap.

At Eastkirk they got out on to the quiet platform and walked to the ticket man, and the train stood still as if it would never move again. Then it gave a long, releasing sigh and slowly eased itself off, haunch by haunch, towards Cullorcoates for Whitley Bay.

Margaret was a quiet child and Lydia was a quiet woman and they took hands and walked to the promenade without a word. It was summer holidays and young men stood about in clusters eating ices. Lydia and Margaret sat on a green seat high above the sea. Little ships bobbed. The pier was merry.

'Oi-oi,' said one boy. Lydia paid no attention but bought ices.

'What's oi-oi?' asked Margaret.

Lydia licked.

'Oi-oi, oi-oi,' said Margaret, wagging her legs from the knee down as she sat on the seat, liking her white ankle-socks and buttoned shoes. Other children ran about in sandals and shorts, but Margaret was neat with a hair-slide low by her ear and a cotton dress with smocking along the back as well as the front. 'It's only by the back you can tell,' her mother always said. 'You can tell a nice child from the back!' Some gulf obtained between Margaret and children with undecorated backs.

They began to walk along the Front, Lydia easily rolling, rather like the train. She was watched a lot and Margaret watched her being watched. She looked up at the high bulk of Lydia. 'You're a real bobby-dazzler,' her mother had said faintly when Lydia had come downstairs dressed for the outing-gone the maid's coffee-coloured dress and cap and apron of cream muslin, the black shoes and stockings. Margaret felt wonderfully proud to be walking beside Lydia so stately and at ease.

When they got to the beginning of the woodland, however, Lydia began to loosen up a bit. The path was steep down to the wood where the stream ran in to the sea and Lydia's high shoes toppled. 'Eeeeh dear,' she said. 'Eeeeeh dearie me!' Margaret began to skip and prance in front. The wood grew darker and higher and the sun was far away above, only dappling the earth under the trees now and then. There were few people about until they came out on a terrace above an ornamental bandstand where men in uniform were playing very sweet music in a loud and carefree way. People sat around the bandstand in rows of deck chairs, some of them with newspapers over their heads to keep off the sun but mostly, both men and women, in hats. The men wore panamas like Margaret's school panama but without the elastic under the chin, the women in broad-ribboned fine straws if they were old, or brimless cloth thimbles if they were young. Lydia said that they would sit down too but Margaret said she would like to go on and Lydia said all right then, and they wandered on into the trees again until it grew quiet and the splendid music died away. Lydia tottered over a tree root and cried out, 'Eeeeh dear!' again, laughing.

'Take them off,' said Margaret.

'And ruin me stockins?'

'Take off your stockings.'

Lydia sat down in the dark wood heavily and slowly and took off the high-heeled shoes and then stretched and heaved up above her skirts to release the suspenders of her orange stockings; three to each leg, front and middle and back. She rolled down the stockings and wiggled her toes. She stuffed the stockings down the front of her sky-blue dress. 'Carry me shoes then,' she said, 'and gis an 'and up.' Margaret pulled and Lydia arose. After a bit she said, 'Eeeeeh dear, me corset. I wish I could tek off me corset.'

'Well, do,' said Margaret. 'You can see right along the path and there's no one in the trees.'

Lydia however was unsure and they walked on together a good way until they came to a wavery side-path down towards the stream. They took this-and the wood was now very dark for such a brilliance above it-and met no one. They came to a dry stream bed with a rustic bridge over it. There was a gate on the bridge at their side of the stream and on the gate a white wooden notice saying PRIVATE. Across the bridge the wood cleared into a green circle of grass with a huge spreading tree over it. The tree's roots were liked webbed fingers and there were black triangular caves between them.

'You could take off your corset and put it in the tree roots for a bit,' said Margaret.

'Git on,' laughed Lydia. She leaned on the rustic gate and looked at the soft grass and the graceful tree with the sun shining through its branches in splashes. 'In' it bonny?' she said.

'Come on,' said Margaret and pushed Lydia which pushed the gate which opened and they giggled again and crossed the bridge. While Lydia took off her corset she made Margaret stand behind the tree. 'All right now,' she called in a minute and Margaret came back and saw Lydia rolling up the huge, pig-pink bundle all slats and eyelet holes and laces.

'That's better,' said Lydia, tying the laces to hold the whole thing together. Margaret took the bundle and felt it while Lydia scratched with both hands at the small of her blue silk back and then round to the front over each hip. 'Shove it undert' tree.' She laughed again, putting her head back. 'It's huge,' said Margaret. It was also heavy and warm and very damp but she did not say so. She pushed the thing quickly into the tree.

'Lovely,' said Lydia lying down. 'Grand.'

'What shall we do now?'

'I'll do nowt. Not owt. I's sweatin'.'

'Can I climb the tree?'

'Don't get yer dress mucky.'

'I'll take it off.'


'Why not?'

'T'd not to.'

'Well look at you!'

'I'm me own boss.' Lydia knew limits for Margaret.

'It's not fair. I'll just tuck it in my knickers then.'

'Aye, tuck it in thy knickers.'

Lydia's eyes were closing. A big round flower, Margaret thought, climbing the sycamore. A big pudding of a flower. A big pudding on a dish. A big sticky pudding, juicy like an apple pudding. Fat and hot and squidgy like an eiderdown-pudding, she thought looking down at uncorseted outspread Lydia. Think I'll jump on her. Squelch and squish.

But at the top of the tree she shot her head out into the bright air. There was a breeze. The thinner branches swayed, the plates of pointed leaves were finer up here and greener. The faint sound of the faraway band blew up. The tree-top swung.

Margaret wanted to laugh and weep. She took the two top-most branches in her hands like the reins of a horse or a water-diviner and with her head still collared by leaves she sang very noisily a song about a baby falling falling falling down. Down and dead, dead and down, on his head, baby dead, until her own head was burning hot and a foot in the buttoned shoe slipped a bit and she went into watery terror and began to feel with her feet downwards, downwards till the branches thickened to comforting bars, then to elephant legs and then-with a thump as she landed on the circle of grass-were not important.

'I've been to the top,' she cried, 'I've been over the top.' She felt the silky boiling crown of her head again and looked round for Lydia. But Lydia was not there.

'Lydia?' she called.


There was almost complete silence in the wood. There was the dry stream bed, the rustic bridge, the flattened, sun-splashed grass where Lydia had lain. Quickly Margaret looked in the tree-root for the corset which was there.

But Lydia was not there.

'She'll be in the bushes,' Margaret thought. 'Lydia!'

There were some crackles and rustles of perhaps field mice or frogs, but no Lydia. Margaret went over and stood on the bridge and kicked at it a bit with her round-ended shoes. She climbed on the rustic logs of its cross-over rustic side and hung over. Then she slithered down the bridge from below. Then she squished about in the pale mud which was the stream and looked around at one thing and another.

'Lydia,' she called more sharply when she had scrabbled her way up the bank again, 'Lydia?'

A short distance behind the green, lawn-like pool of grass beneath the tree was a bank of other trees, very steep and thinning to sunlight along a ridge, and Margaret began in a great hurry to rush up this bank. 'Lydia,' she shouted now. 'Where are you, Lydia?' At the top of the bank fear suddenly had hold of her and made her hands heavy and her legs wobble. Tears came in to her eyes. 'Lydia!'

She shot out of the trees at the top of the slope into wide empty sunshine. There was complete silence, not a soul about, just a great swelling plain of upward-curved parkland sleeping in the afternoon. Several immense trees stood about on it, dark gold and as still as cut-outs. Beyond them, far away, stood a massive yellow house. Its eyes watched her. She stared back.

Then below she heard quite a long way off Lydia calling Margaret.

'Margaret? Where you gone? I lost yer.'

She turned and flew down the bank. Lydia stood on the far side of the bridge.

'I lost you,' shouted Margaret, 'I lost you. I hate you.'

'I was just int' bushes,' said Lydia. 'It's time we went home. I was washing me hands int' bushes.'

'Why didn't you go this side in the bushes?'

'I didn't like.'

'I was lost.'

'You'd not of got far,' said Lydia.

After she had got into the corset again they ate the teacakes out of the paper-bag and walked up through the wood and passed the band. In the train Lydia said, 'Wherever did yer tek off til, anyway?'

'Nowhere,' said Margaret. 'If I tuck my dress in my knickers can I get in the rack?'

Lying in the luggage rack above Lydia, rocking like a sailor, she said, 'Can we go there again next week?'

'I'm not bothered,' said Lydia. 'If yer want.'

Chapter Two

Mrs Marsh, Margaret's mother, was a great breast-feeder at a time when it was fashionable to be otherwise. Nor had she shingled her hair nor seen to her waistline. She was a largish, loose-jointed, still-young woman much given to God and sympathy and immensely loving to babies. She sat hour after hour in her bedroom, knees apart in a nicely-made but antique sort of a skirt, deeply-waved brown hair falling round her face untidily.

Sometimes she had flour on her face, for she seldom looked in the glass and was fond of cooking. As she fed the baby she looked into its face all the time with a very gentle deep expression. When Margaret came into the room she would raise her head with a long and understanding look.

'Going out, dear?'


'I thought it was Wednesday.'

'It is. That's this afternoon.'

'What, dear?'

'Going out.'

Mrs Marsh, dazed about times of day, detached herself from the baby, drawing herself back and mopping about with a cloth. She lifted the baby up on her shoulder where a huge towelling nappy lay, hanging a little way down her back for the baby to be sick on. She massaged its back, which was like the back of a duck, oven-ready. The baby's unsteady head and swivelling eyes rolled on her shoulder, its round mouth slightly open, wet and red. It seemed, filmily, to be trying to take in Margaret, who was fiddling with things on the mantelpiece behind her mother. She looked down at it with a realistic glare. The baby under the massage let air come out of its mouth in a long explosion and pale milk ran out and over its chin.

'Filthy,' said Margaret.

'There's my little lovekin,' said Mrs Marsh. She lifted the baby into the air before her, both hands under the armpits, and let it hang like dough about to drop. 'What did you say, dear? It's your treat-day with Lydia, isn't it?'

'This afternoon,' said Margaret, dropping the baby's bottle of gripe water and smashing it to bits on the mottled cream tiles of the fireplace. Glass flew everywhere in splinters, and the baby, after jerking as if it had received an electric shock, began to cry like a new lamb. 'Lair, lair, lair,' it went, scarlet in the face and flushing quickly to purple all over its bald head, its eyes in two directions.

Mrs Marsh was not upset, though she had jumped as violently as her son. Margaret saw her take the decision to be understanding rather than annoyed. 'There now,' she said. Placing the lamenting child over her other, nappiless, shoulder she drew Margaret to her to lean upon the other one. 'Never mind, dear. Just an accident.'

Margaret-her mother smelled of milk and baby powder-pulled away and made a face. 'It's like a pig,' she said.

Mrs Marsh looked yet more understanding.

'Darling, you do know how much we love you, don't you? He's your baby too, you know, just as much as ours. Look-you hold him. You're such a big girl. He's going to love you so much.'

'What's so marvellous?'


'About that? Why do I have to be pleased that he's going to love me? I don't need him.'

'He will need you.'

'No, he won't. If I wasn't here he wouldn't know anything about me.'

'But you are here.'

'I'm not here for him. I managed without me. Nobody was here for me when I was born and I was all right.'

Mrs Marsh, trying slowly to digest this empirical point, wrapped the child very tight in a cloth with its arms crossed over its chest tight beneath it, then put it on its face in the flounced organdy of the crib.

It did not look up to its surroundings. More like a trussed duck than ever.

'It can't be good for it, bound up like that,' said Margaret, and Mrs Marsh brightened at a sign of possible concern. 'Oh yes it is, dear. It says so in Truby King. They like to feel safe.'

'I don't see why you feel safe if you're tied up.'

'Not tied up, dear. Just well wrapped round. Babies come from a very warm place,' she said, coy but emancipated. 'Safe in a little nest in their mummies' tummies.'

'I wouldn't say a little nest,' said Margaret. 'It was huge. And all rippling about. You could see it even, at the end. When some of the Saints came in just before that Sunday I was nearly sick. You ought to have been ashamed. All huge.'

'Now why ashamed?' asked Mrs Marsh, very bright. She had secretly found some Freud to read in the Public Library during pregnancy, as well as Truby King. 'Now why ashamed? It's quite natural. After all, it's how we all came, darling.'


Excerpted from GOD ON THE ROCKS by Jane Gardam Copyright © 1978 by Jane Gardam. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 8 )
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  • Posted March 30, 2012

    Not quite as good as "Old Filth," which is the only ot

    Not quite as good as "Old Filth," which is the only other book by Gardam I've read to date (although I will surely read the rest). But then again, "Old Filth" is a very hard act to follow and "God on the Rocks", for all it was shortlisted for the Booker back in 1978, was (I think) Gardam's first.

    In this novel, Gardam's humor is by turns scathing and sweet and surprising. Her characters are marvels of three-dimensional creation. Here, between the two World Wars, we have quiet, self-contained, old-before-her-years Margaret, growing up in an alarmingly religious household with her mother Ellie, who has just had another child, and her father, Kenneth, Pastor of an evangelical church. Enter stage left -- Lydia, a somewhat blowsy, vulgar and undeniably alluring 'maid'. Lydia and Margaret go on day trips, where the world becomes far more complicated than Margaret had imagined up until this point: they visit a lunatic asylum, wherein lives an old lady with many secrets and a painter who paints, among other things, quite a lot of snakes.

    Lydia evokes all sorts of emotions, not least of them from pious Kenneth. Ellie, in turn, revives a friendship with a long-lost love, the estranged son of the lady in the asylum. In other words, everyone's life gets a good shaking up, resulting in a rocky cliff of disillusion, which echoes the title -- God on the Rocks.

    Gardam uses a complicated omniscient point of view in this work -- multiple voices and multiple time frames, and if she doesn't quite pull it off on every page, she comes close enough for it not to matter. You have to pay attention when you read Gardam, so as not to miss anything, and the effort is well rewarded. Highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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