As a little girl, Cressida is terrified of George Harding, a scarred World War II pilot who insinuates himself into her family’s life. He’s provided for them in a sense since her father was rendered incapable, even moving them into his vacant servants’ house when they can no longer afford their own. For Cressida, he has a special assignment; he wants her to spend time with his nephew Edgar and make the timid boy into a bold spirit like she is. He even pays her to do it. Slowly, however, Cressida realizes that this isn’t about Edgar; it is about George and her relationship with him, and only Cressida can decide where she is going with her life.
I find it hard to clarify how I feel about this book. For one thing, I had a very difficult time identifying with Cressida or her mother. Both of them seem to change their mind on a whim, their opinion of people changing rapidly. Their behavior matches and sometimes I couldn’t understand why they were doing what they were doing. I could easily understand their frustration with each other, though, and recognize their predicament as a case of a mother and daughter being too similar in character to see eye-to-eye.
This book is meant to be a love story, but it’s difficult to see it that way in the beginning, and seems a peculiar one at that. Mr. Harding is a constant feature in Cressida’s life as she goes from despising him to being intrigued by him to loving him desperately. He is a fascinating and surprisingly good man, but is frustratingly determined to stop the relationship and to allow Cressida to use her intellect and succeed in life. Admirable motives, but frustrating to read about Cressida’s longing for him and difficulty with that same intellect.
Despite its very short length, this is by no means a light read. It certainly deals with tortured souls, class struggles, and conflict between all manner of characters, from servants and masters to parents and children. It felt very dark. None of the characters are happy and their lives are constantly changing, an endless seesaw of joy and misery. It is thoughtful and at times feels very deep and brooding.
Perhaps what was most disturbing about this novel is that there is no sense of setting. The period is ambiguous; it’s post-World War II but it’s difficult to tell how much after. The location can only be discerned from reading the book’s summary and even when I knew I found it difficult to believe the book was set in South Africa and not somewhere in Europe. Except for the scarred Mr. Harding, I had no idea what any of the characters were supposed to look like. It’s hard to pin them down. It’s as though I enjoyed reading the book, but felt I was left with phantoms for characters, and perhaps the very end of the book was the only part that pleased me.
I would struggle to recommend The Servants’ Quarters. If you enjoy dark and thoughtful novels about class struggles and strange romances, then by all means read this, but I think it will miss the mark for most people.