Absent in the Spring

I just finished reading Agatha Christie’s novel, Absent in the Spring today. Which is rather surprising because I just borrowed the book from the Seberang Perai library yesterday evening!
We were out the whole of yesterday anyway, visiting a client whose factory is in Mak Mandin and after that we had another appointment to meet another client for a late lunch (I was practically dying of hunger and don’t you get embarrassed when your stomach growls loudly?) at Megamall Prai. The lunch was at 3.30pm and yes, it was another one hour of conversation before we could leave.
As I had a book which was already past due, we headed for the Seberang Perai library near the PERKESO building (also near the newly opened Sunway Carnival Mall at Jalan Todak).
The one thing I cannot understand about libraries in Malaysia is this: we have the funds but we make/build bad libraries. The Georgetown library (at Jalan Scotland) has so little parking space that people often park outside the library, on the road shoulder sometimes. It gets worse on weekends when you have families and teens using the library.
I complained about this to a friend of mine who works at the Singapore Library and he’s smug but he’s right to be smug. His library is full of recent titles (such as Terry Pratchett books) and they have the works. And their location is smack dab in the middle of the city so everyone can get to the library easily.
Not so for Penang. Or even KL. Have you been to the National Library in KL? It’s so far away from the city. It’s really out of the way. And Penang libraries too – both Georgetown and Seberang Perai libraries. You will need a motorbike or a car to get there. And once you get there, there’s no place to bloody park!
The Seberang Perai library is much bigger than the Penang one. The books are old and tattered but for RM2 per year for an adult library membership card (to borrow 2 books for 2 weeks), it’s a cheap way to get my book fix. The library membership allows you to borrow from any public library in Penang and this includes the one at Seberang Perai. So you can borrow your books there and return it at the Penang branch.
I’ve no complaints though as I get to read fiction and non-fiction, and I get to renew my books by calling the library. (At least they allow us to do that. Saves us the hassle of driving to the library to get the books renewed.)
Another library I love is the USM library (both – the Main Library and Library 2). I remember being holed up at the library during my undergrad days and also my postgrad days but how I enjoyed being surrounded by tomes and tomes of knowledge. I loved reading books which have nothing to do with my course of study (bad sometimes because I get so sidetracked). But the USM libraries are good places to get lost in. No one bugs you. I just find a nice table, grab a bunch of books and sit to read all afternoon.
Anyway, back to Agatha Christie. This book, Absent in the Spring, was written under another name of hers, Mary Westmacott in 1944. I picked it up because much as I am a fan of Christie’s Poirot and Maples, I had never had a chance to read a non-mystery novel of hers.
Absent in the Spring tells of a simple story of a middle-aged woman, Joan Scudamore, who’s stranded in a rest house in the middle of the desert on her way back from visiting her daughter and son-in-law in Baghdad. With the rains preventing her train from arriving, she finally has time to contemplate on her life which she thinks has turned out rather well. She prides herself on her 3 children, all grown up. She thinks her husband, Rodney, is doing immensely well as a country solicitor though a bit overworked. Proudly, she has played a part in creating this perfect family of hers – pleased that she’s the anchor for her family.
Of course she compares herself with an old school friend she met the day before she got stranded at the rest house. Blanche is everything she isn’t and for that she’s grateful. Blanche, with her string of husbands and children, has lived life wildly and improperly, thinks Joan. She finds herself pitying Blanche.
Yet in the following days of being solitary in the desert, she starts thinking about her life back home in England, her husband and her children. All sorts of memories come back to haunt her – unsavoury memories which she had pushed to the edges because she had been too busy and too efficient to pay attention to.
In the short novel, Joan Scudamore’s perfect life starts to unravel through flashbacks. Her children never loved her as much as they adored their father. She never understood why her daughter Barbara had to marry young and leave for Baghdad. Or why Barbara came down with ‘food poisoning’ – precisely the real reason for her hospital stay was never uncovered by Joan as she rushed from England to Baghdad in her role as a devoted mother.
Other skeletons start appearing. Did Rodney… did Rodney, her sweet husband, actually had more than friendship with Leslie, a married woman whom she often disparaged about? Why did Rodney have a mental breakdown? What did he mean when he praised Leslie’s courage?
Or what about Averil, her eldest daughter. Why is Averil always so cold and impervious to her mother’s words? Why did their children go to their father first, always, in times of need?
It’s a simple novel, and one which I finished in one day. Reading Christie’s novels are always delightful and endearing; she portrays a time and place when the world or at least her characters said things like “how dreadful”, “what a pity”, “rather horrid”. It’s so British and so old world that it’s charming!
I could not put down the novel – it really hooked me. It’s much like her mystery novels – you keep turning the page because you can’t wait to find out who the killer is.
In the end of course Joan finds out who she really is. She almost goes mad too because there’s no other guest there except her and the caretaker and cook.
Absent in the Spring is a tightly-woven psychological read which should leave you quite satisfied. It’s truly vintage Christie!
* The title “Absent in the Spring” is taken from Sonnet 98 by William Shakespeare’s “From you had I been absent in the spring”.

2 thoughts on “Absent in the Spring”

  1. Thanks for sharing the book. Sounds like a lovely book to me. 🙂
    Took me more than a year to go back to Georgetown Library, after my first attempt to make a library card for my son who was then one and a half year old. “Your son is too young to read anyway” – Then, i can’t really remember what hit me. I was so upset, I told the guy off.
    Anyway, i have signed up this year for ethan (now 3) but has yet to pick up the card mainly because the books are really really old, and the good ones are always borrowed (or i don’t go often enough), and the titles are all so so only. But you are right about one thing; At the v.least, we have a library to go to! you found a good book, didn’t you?!
    Just like to add – for those who happen to be in singapore – drop by their libraries in town esp. the ones in Takeshimaya and Esplanade. Woohoo!
    K, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t have much free (or uninterrupted) time these days…so, i get my fix reading your blogs. Haha, u bet I do. Cheers, to u!

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