The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates
An innocent tax collector visits the home of a family of tax-evaders in rural England. He has no clue what he is getting into. Will he make it out of the home alive? Or will he stay in their clutches forever?
You could spin the concept of the book as a dramatic thriller. But really The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates is one of the most charming novels you'll ever read. It follows the story of Charlie (Cedric Charlton) a young man who works for the local tax office. He's been sent out to the Larkin's home in Kent to talk about their taxes. Or for that matter, the income taxes they've never paid. Ever.
A visit that was only supposed to last a couple hours ends up lasting an entire month with Larkin's luring him in to their country ways. There is Pa Larkin, a farmer who knows how to barter and to mix a very strong cocktail. His income primarily comes from trading goods. In fact, he's not sure what income really is. To him it's all "out"come! The Larkin's are very well-fed bunch, feasting on full English breakfasts, desserts and heavy dinners. Not to mention all the alcohol. Make sure you don't read the book on an empty stomach or you might start salivating.
The book starts when Ma Larkin tells Pa Larkin that their eldest daughter Mariette (of 5 children) is pregnant. And not only is it out-of-wedlock, Mariette can't figure out who the father is. That's pretty darn scandalous even for today. But the Larkin's are free-thinkers and don't care to judge their daughter. Pa thinks it's purrfec' (his favorite word) either way.
When Charlie comes to visit the Larkin's have a dilemma. They like the guy but they don't want to pay taxes. A series of events that both charm and confuse Charlie send him on a whirlwind. He's stuffed with food, given too much alcohol and the beautiful and nubile Mariette is hypnotizing him. The novel introduces you to a lovely bunch of characters and a look into the charmed world of the Larkin's.
What impresses me about H.E. Bates' novel is how seemingly innocent it is. For a moment, you are entranced, much like Charlie is, with the family and their unconventional ways that you forget what society told you was wrong and you just have fun. When you read this, you want to move in with the Larkin's! I love Bates' prose. He refers to the romantic elements of nature in the prose to enhance the bucolic setting. I love the last line in which the four main characters are looking out the window onto the property while listening to the nightingales in the background.
There really is no plot or rising action in the book. It's really just a slice of life kind of tale. You follow their adventures. The only real tension one can find in the book is whether Charlie will leave the Larkin's or if they will convince him to stay.
I first became familiar with the story of the Larkin's and Charlie through the British TV mini-series from the early 1990s by the same name. Each part of the mini-series is devoted to one of the 5 books in the Larkin family series. I have to say, I'm impressed with the producers of the mini-series as they kept very true to the original books. The charm, the dialogue, the characters, nothing is changed. It's all is how H.E. Bates presents it in the book. The American film version The Mating Game (1959) however is a very loose Americanized interpretation of the book and makes a lot of changes so it could pass the censors strict guidelines.
I listened to this book on audio. It was read by Bruce Montague who I think did a superb job with the narration. Even with his somewhat deep British voice he managed to do well with the female characters. His voice was soothing which complemented the book quite nicely.
There are five books in the series as listed below. A few of them are available on Amazon and Barnesandnoble.com but not all. You'd have to order from Amazon.co.uk if you want the complete set. The first book The Darling Buds of May is available on audio from Audible.com.
The Darling Buds of May
A Breath of French Air
When the Green Woods Laugh
Oh! To Be in England!
A Little of What You Fancy
If you are a fan of books like I Captured the Castle or Cold Comfort Farm , then I would recommend you read this. If you are a fan of the series, then you MUST read this. I had such an enjoyable time with the book that I didn't want it to end. I hope I can manage to get all the books in the set. The Larkin's made me want to stay with them forever.