“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there,” begins L. P. Hartley’s classic 1953 novel, The Go-Between, often cited as one of the best books of the last century and a key inspiration behind Ian McKewan’s Atonement.
Twelve-year-old Leo Colston spends the summer of 1900 at the country estate of his much wealthier school friend, Marcus Maudsley, presided over by a patriarch who “sitting down looked much taller than standing up” and a matriarch “who seemed to take up more space than necessary.” What begins as a delicious idyll of scorching skies, afternoon swims, tea and cricket, soon darkens toward storm. Leo suffers his first crush on Marcus’s elder sister Marion, becoming an unwilling go-between in her complicated machinations with a war hero beau and a local farmer. Leo’s defining characteristic is his naivete, which everyone exploits for their own amusement, and the reader chuckles along manipulated by Hartley’s irony, making us complicit in the tragedy to come. Leo’s romantic imagination favors heros and villians; his immature world view defined by the simplistic nationalism and innate snobbery characteristic of England prior to the First World War. “I carried my hierarchical principles into my notions of morality,” he reflects, years later, and his fatal flaw is made tangible by a Lincoln green suit gifted by the Maudsleys on his birthday “It is your true color,” chants Marcus, “Green, green, green.”
By a simple mistake Leo would become the boy remembered for his “songs of death, not songs of love…“, learning that the value of a man lies not in his wealth and class but in his heart and soul. When the local farmer considers joining the army, Leo realizes, “there was a lot of him to be killed, and what there was he carried about with him, it was not spread out over houses and parkland.” Like Atonement, The Go-Between has an epilogue. The scene prior to it is a literary tour-de-force, making it feel unnecessary (as epilogues and prologues, I think, often are). Yet like McKewan’s homage, it offers a final twist regarding the woman (and there always is a woman it seems in these stories of coming-of-age) at the heart of the matter. A wonderful novel, worthy of its endurance.