Title: The Ha-Ha
Author: Jennifer Dawson
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1961)
Where to buy: Barnes & Noble
What is a brilliant young woman who lacks the knack of existing to do with her life? That is the question this powerful, short book by Jennifer Dawson poses to the reader. The title, The Ha-Ha, refers to a wall and the surrounding small patch of grass that acts as a point of separation between a mental hospital and the world outside. Josephine, our heroine, spends much of her time there, avoiding the issues of her life. Lacking an identity, she feels no more affinity to her name than to the clothes she wears. She was a student at Oxford before she had a mental breakdown.
In the course of Josephine’s recovery, a nun in charge of her ward takes a special interest in her, stopping in for chats and leaving small gifts of sweets when she leaves. The nun gets Josephine a job in the nearby town cataloging books for an elderly couple. The reader feels the irony of the situation: Josephine neatly organizing books when she can’t find her own place in society. The story is interspersed with Josephine’s reminisces about her difficult mother who died in a tragic fire.
After running into an old schoolmate, she attends an engagement party and has a difficult time assimilating herself to those around her. The schoolmate knows how to navigate society, telling everyone that she was leaving her so-called management course (in reality, a job putting candy bars into boxes) to get married. But Josephine doesn’t know how to tell little social lies to fit in. She can’t hide who she is, and so she seems to fail.
She meets Alasdair, a resident of the neighboring men’s ward of the mental hospital, in the ha-ha. Alasdair appreciates her inability to fit into a neat place in society. They lounge together after hours in the board room (where the board meets to re-grade individuals, determining whether they are fit for reentry to society) and sneak out some evenings. Josephine is obsessed with the idea of what lies beyond the hill she can see from the window in her room. Alasdair brings her for a trip to the other side of the hill, one that seems to alter her view of the world and things around her. She thinks that she loves Alasdair, but will she spend the rest of her life with him? Or will Josephine succumb to the coddling kindness of the nun who is trying to fit her back in a comfortable box in society?
This book was the winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1961, and yet it seems that no other book by Jennifer Dawson is currently in print. This is such a shame since I enjoyed this book so much. It reminded me in some ways of The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, another story of a brilliant student who had a breakdown. I’m eager to find other books by Dawson if possible to get better acquainted with her writing. My edition of this book had a brilliant afterword by Dawson, explaining some of her reasoning behind the book, its autobiographical features, and the ways that the treatment of the mentally ill has changed over time.