Some days it seems Shena Mackay’s best book might be Heligoland, and Rowena Snow, whom the reader ends up really rooting for, her most appealing character. She sort of falls into the category of Shena’s “everyday failures”, but her life has been so complex and ill-fated that she hasn’t really had much of a chance to be anything else, at least until she ends up at the Nautilus, as the resident housekeeper.
Rowena, it appears, was born in the foothills of the Himalayas, her father being Scottish and her mother Indian. He was killed on the Burma Front, and Rowena was orphaned at an early age, leaving India to go and live happily with an aunt in Scotland. Tragedy strikes again when Rowena is eight, her aunt dies, and she is sent to a “progressive boarding school”, in Southern England which was where she stayed.
Rowena is a bit of a dreamer, and clings to an idealised notion of a place called Heligoland: “Heligoland remains for Rowena a hazy faraway place of solace and reunion” She simply wants to belong, and yearns for a community of souls.
As an adult, she has been “always a visitor, an observer through windows of other people’s domestic interiors and, in her employment by various agencies as home help, cleaner and nurse, an auxiliary to other people’s lives.”
She is sensitive, thin-skinned, full of contradictions, contrary, hard on herself, with low self-esteem, forever dismissing other people’s kind words and questioning motives, such as when Celeste, the driving force of the Nautilus, suggests Rowena in her working life has “made a lot of people’s lives easier and happier. Can’t you be proud of that?”
There are some quintessentially Shena passages about Rowena and her quiet life: “Her heart leaped up at the sight of her new rainbow duster with an extending handle, and she showered and went to bed in anticipation of winding hitherto unreachable cobwebs round its dust-magnetic spiracles”. In other less-gifted hands this would have sounded trite and patronising, but the way Shena puts it the reader understands the thrill, and can no doubt share similar examples of simple pleasures.
Similarly, there is Rowena on the bus, all too aware that apparently only losers take the bus: “When she goes through Camberwell on the bus, she always looks out for the mosaic butterfly set in the wall near the shopping arcade, before Butterfly Walk where a man was shot dead only yesterday.”
Rowena finds an unlikely and unwitting saviour in the shape of Francis Campion the elderly poet, an original resident of the Nautilus, who from partly selfish motives invites her to accompany him to the AGM and the ensuing reception of SIPS (that is a charitable organisation, the Society for Indigent Poets, known affectionately as DAMS, which stands for despondency and madness).
Rowena, characteristically, is part thrilled and part terror-stricken by the invitation to go with Francis to Chelsea. She dares “to hope that the DAMS would be a tatterdemalion crew in rags and jags”, and frets about what to wear. Celeste solves the thorny problem by suggesting Rowena wear the cherry-coloured jacket she has, the one that “had her name on it as soon as she’d spotted it in the BHHI charity shop”.
It is only when the event is in full flow that Rowena realises how “in her solipsistic anxiety, she hasn’t taken on board, until this moment, what an enormous privilege it is to be here.” She is terrified about whether she made a fool of herself, but Rowena does fine at the reception, and even makes friends there with Jenners Leaf, he of the “leporine face”, one of the good guys, a mensch, and one who is on the side of the angels.
The recovering Rowena suggests accompanying Francis to the memorial service of an old poet friend of his, Marcus Scrabster, who went to fight with the International Brigade, and long ago left London behind and moved to a remote Scottish island. She is consequently horrified when she realises she will need to make the arrangements and would have to go into a travel agents: “They are for other people, real people who go on holiday, and don’t have to lie to hairdressers.”
Shena’s handling of the awakening of Rowena, the success she makes of her job at the Nautilus, the way she is treated there, the visit to Chelsea, somehow suggests a line of Holly Golightly’s which is always worth remembering: “Anyone who ever gave you confidence, you owe them a lot”