The Go-Between was an instant hit when it was published in 1953. Its first line has become almost as famous as the book itself: ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ The story is narrated by Leo, as he looks back on his childhood. Leo finds a diary for the year 1900, and it prompts him to recall the scorching summer that changed his life, a summer when he was drawn into the dangerous world of adult relationships. In his naivety, he didn’t see the danger at all.
I was intrigued from the beginning. The found diary is a wonderful way of telling the story. We do not get the diary itself, but it provokes the older Leo to remember. This tragedy, which took place in an England which is out of reach, has a feeling of completeness and distance. It is a time and place which has ended. The past is indeed a foreign country.
Leo is spending the summer with his friend Marcus, with Marcus’ family. Leo is fascinated by the family, especially the enchanting Marion. But an exhaustive list of characters is of little interest to someone reading a review.
One of the novel’s great strengths is that it gets into the mind of a child. Leo lives in a world of wild imagination, of magical powers, of unqualified admiration for certain grown ups. It’s a world where things really matter – school, summer holidays, young friendship. Leo’s friend Marcus comes down with flu, which means Leo is deprived of young company all of a sudden, in a house full of adults. This is when Leo becomes the ‘go-between’ and enters a dangerous situation of passing notes between two people who have a secret.
I am thankful I never studied this book at school. I came to it fresh and without prejudice. I never had its themes drilled into me just in case they came up in an exam, or the meaning taken apart and dissected. (it was probably Mark Twain who said that humour is like a frog – when you dissect it, it dies. The same can be said of certain books.)
I won’t try to give a summary of the story here. Often a book will leave you with an impression, or a glimpse of something you had never seen before. These things can last a long time after some of the plot details have faded from memory. There are some aspects of this story which are handled very deftly – the relative poverty of the protagonist, which is so alien to the others they do not recognise it; the memory of the English countryside when there was the ‘big house’, the village, and the farms, and the complex rules and relationships between those different people, who nevertheless amounted to a community.
It is no surprise that this book is a classic, and no surprise it has been adapted into every medium imaginable (okay, not all of them. I’ve not seen a Go-Between video game. I would love to see a Go-Between video game. It would be terrible.) Harold Pinter famously adapted it for the screen. Less famously, it has been an opera and also a musical. This is a special story. I will always think of it as a good example of how to write a novel. Theme, character, setting, plot, pace, etc, all come together in harmony. If you don’t know it, I recommend you don’t read another word about it, but get hold of a copy and read it.