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Susan’s Bookshelves: Dance of the Dwarfs by Geoffrey Household

This novel was first published in 1968 which was about the time I got to know my soon-to-be mother-in-law cosily enough to swap reading recommendations with her. She was very taken with Dance of the Dwarfs. So I read it. Of course I had forgotten the details – all except the precise nature of the secret in the forest – so I was intrigued to return to it.

It presents a British botanist, Dr Owen Dawnay, doing field work in a very remote part of Colombia when huge tranches of central America were still very wild and there is dangerous hostility between political factions. Locals talk, and are frightened of, “dancing dwarfs” in the forest so they keep well away.  As a scientist, Dawnay is dismissive of such superstitions and curious to know what is really there. Eventually he finds out. No spoilers here, obviously, except for two observational hints. First, I remember learning a new (to me, then) zoological term from this book which I’ve found mildly useful ever since.  Second, reading Dance of the Dwarfs now, I am convinced that Geoffery Household (1900-1988) must have been nurtured on The Wind in the Willows. He’d have been eight when it was first published in 1908.

It’s a novel which begins at the end, as it were, with a report of Dawnay being found dead in his adobe house with his arms round a young female along with remains of two horses. It is presumed that  insurgents shot the humans and that the horses died of starvation but the bodies are too far gone to ascertain cause of death. Why moreover did the guerillas not steal the horses rather than leaving them? It doesn’t quite add up. Then Dawnay‘s journal emerges unexpectedly and that’s what forms the backbone of the novel so we know all along that we’re not headed for any sort of happy ending as we gradually learn what actually happened.

Well, of course you don’t have to like any first person narrator (think of Humbert Humbert and Lolita) I certainly don’t like Owen Dawnay.  He does far too much shooting of wildlife – some of it for pleasure rather than food – for my 21st century sensibilities. Moreover his “colonial,” patriarchal attitudes are pretty foul. He talks of “Indians” (the term at the time for the indigenous people) as if they were a separate race and when he is “gifted” a young woman, Chucha, to keep his bed warm he laps her up and keeps telling us how good the sex is. He is, however, also kind to her so that gradually, against his own will, he falls in love with her and is troubled about her future and his own. He really doesn’t want to pass her on to someone else when he leaves – although he has been approached. This is pretty revolting stuff by today’s standards so it’s strong characterisation. Interestingly, though, I don’t recall being struck by any of that when I first read it. I suppose it’s a sign of just how much more sensitive about these issues most of us are now – thank goodness.

Meanwhile, against a background of violence and people turning up on the doorstep with guns quite regularly and some deaths and disappearances, is Dawnay‘s quest, determination and to an extent courage.  At its heart Dance of the Dwarfs is a study of fear, especially of the unknown, and Household manages it perfectly. Sometimes science simply can’t outwit nature. The locals know that. And if Dawnay had listened to them he might have survived to live happily ever after (or something) with Chucha. But, until finally overwhelmed with terror himself he’s a fatalistic character, and it wouldn’t have been such an arresting novel.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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