I picked up this book solely because it was a Virago Modern classics. I had read a lot of good things about them on various blogs and I was eager to read one. I had never heard of the book or the author. I am not sure when or why a book becomes a classic but I am guessing two important components are rich language and a compelling storyline that sustains itself generation after generation.
With that in mind I am not entirely sure whether ‘The Play Room’ qualifies to be a modern classic. But I guess, 50 years down the line, it may be a reflection of teenage youth in England during the Swinging 60s.
The Play Room is centered around Laura, a 15 year intelligent girl from a lower middle class family, residing in the town of Camperlea. Laura suffers from low self-esteem issues that is in a way heightened by the no-nonsense environment at home. Laura thinks she is unattractive and pines for the acceptance and attention from her classmates. In particular, Laura admires Vicky to whom she feels forever indebted for having saved her from the class room bully. Vicky is beautiful and well-off and has certain enigma attached to her due to the early death of her older brother and a mentally vulnerable mother. Gilda, another student in Laura’s class, has claimed Vicky’s best friend position and their relationship is depicted with some sexual undertones though nothing definite is stated. Laura believes that only thing that could make her popular and add some excitement to her existence would be a friendship with Vicky.
During their summer break, Laura and her brother Tom, go off to visit an old but not –so-close family friend at Isle of Wight. One day they stumble across the private property of Mrs Toplady who keeps a Play Room which contains life- sized models of nude dolls .
As with Gilda’s & Vicky’s relationship , Manning does not state anything clearly , but it is implied that Mrs. Toplady is a transvestite and may particularly have some sexual fetishes. However , all this strangeness is lost on Laura who is very flattered by Mrs. Toplady’s comments on her beauty. When Laura heads back to school she decides to share this incident with Gilda & Vicky to win their interest. This scheme works and slowly but reluctantly she is accepted into Vicky’s life and house.
Laura’s social life takes off as she starts attending dances with Vicky. Vicky’s disturbing childhood is clearly taking a toll on her as her behavior and company get reckless. Though Laura’s loyalty and better sense want to protect Vicky, especially when she gets involved in a self-destructive relationship with Salthous factory worker, Clarie, the fear of losing her new-found friend prevents Laura from doing so. The book takes a darker and sinister tone and ends on a tragic note.
Manning addresses several issues pertaining to adolescence – the need to fit in, sexual curiosity, teenage rebellion, parental neglect . The main shortcoming of the book is that none of the characters are very well etched out. You want to know why Gilda and Vicky are friends? Why does Laura feel like an outcast? Who was Mrs Toplady ? Did she have a larger role to play?
The book is titled ‘Play Room’ and hence as a reader you attempt to make a connection between the dolls and the characters even though none is apparent. At the end Manning is probably trying to leave a very chilling but possible relevant message – that humans are like life-sized dolls stuck in situations and environments they can’t control for the entertainment of bigger beings.