Book Review: Greenery Street by Denis Mackail



Greenery Street
Denis Mackail

In high school I had a dream one night where I was in some city that was unknown to me. I woke up feeling like this was the place I needed to be. There was something about the physical setting of the dream that just gave me a groove. I could never quite put my finger on what it was that made that particular dreamscape so special. Years later after I moved to Washington, DC, I realized that DC, or something very much like it, was the city in my dream a decade earlier. A dense but picturesque walkable neighborhoods filled with old brick buildings, pockets of green space with statuary and monuments tucked everywhere, and lots of vibrant street life. Although there are plenty of reasons to complain about DC, from an aesthetic and urban design perspective this really is the embodiment of that nebulous and lovely image that was tucked somewhere in my brain all those years.

Well, Felicity Hamilton has a similarly nebulous and lovely image in her head.

A picture began to form itself in Felicity’s mind of two rows of symmetrical doorsteps, of first-floor French windows which opened on to diminutive balconies, of a sunny little street with scarlet omnibuses roaring past one end and a vista of trees seen facing the other. Sometimes it was so clear that she could almost read the name on the corner lamp-post; sometimes it faded to a blur or the view-point changed so that only one house was visible. Neat little area railings, a brightly painted front door with a shining brass knocker. It opened and showed a narrow passage-hall, lighted by a window on the turn of the stairs; and in that window there came the green light of sunshine filtered through leaves. ‘That’s the house we’re going to live in,’ she said to herself. ‘But where did I see it?’ Where could she have been going when a momentary glimpse from a taxi had shown her that passage-hall and that window? And why had she forgotten all about it at the time, only to find it lodged so obstinately in her memory now?

As luck would have it, Felicity does finally find Greenery Street again, and she and her fiancé Ian Foster manage to find a place of their own there to move into after they are married. It would be wrong to say that Greenery Street is the background for the story of this young couple’s new life together. The street itself, is as much a character as they are. Just as we learn about Ian and Felicity’s personalities and foibles, so too do we learn about the foibles and personality of the street itself. With little exception the street is home to young couples making their way and their new lives together. Staying in Greenery Street just long enough for the first baby or two to come along and require a move to more spacious accommodations.

It would be equally wrong, however, to say that the book is actually about Greenery Street. It certainly plays a central role, but there is plenty going on in the life of the newly married Fosters to keep one’s attention. Money, housekeeping, families, the ups and downs of a couple getting to know each other; although the circumstances may be very different, the themes are somewhat universal. More than once I saw elements of my own marriage (and our house hunting for that matter) illuminated in Greenery Street. Thankfully, I believe that modes of interpersonal communication have improved immensely since the 1920s so that many frustrating situations can be avoided, but some of the same relationship pitfalls seem unavoidable 90 years later.

Although some of the situations and challenges seem a little twee and of a time and class foreign to most of us, the story is still relatable and quite a lot of fun. Mackail’s narrative style is eclectic at times and his voice is sometimes front and center. Like a narrator holding a large story book relating the action to the audience just before the scene dissolves to depict the action at hand with the narrator fading from the screen. It is a playful omniscience that allows the street to become a character, and I found it, and the book itself, charming and humorous.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: Greenery Street by Denis Mackail

  1. skirmishofwit May 9, 2010 / 5:04 am

    I loved the story of your dream city – so glad you found it a few years on! I really enjoyed reading your review, as I picked up Greenery St a few years ago, thinking I'd enjoy it immensely, but then put it down out of boredom after a couple of chapters. Your review has made me think I should give it another go.


  2. Paperback Reader May 9, 2010 / 7:26 am

    Ah, the temptation…

    Quotes from Flowers and Stripes this week very nearly made me buy a copy of Greenery Street yesterday but I successful resisted. I am holding out until I am married myself as I think I shall enjoy it more; I am also holding Verity to her offer of buying it for me as a wedding gift (although seeing as she is currently the one engaged, I think I'll be giving her her own copy first!)

    I love your dream; somethings are so inexplicable and yet completely meant to be.


  3. Frances May 9, 2010 / 9:15 am

    Loved the story of your dreamlike connection to DC even more than your thoughts on this engaging sounding Persephone. Always enjoy intricate details of setting so this one sounds lovely to me. On to the now lengthy list of Persephones to be read. Happy reading!


  4. Thomas at My Porch May 9, 2010 / 9:30 am

    Skirmish of Wit: Interesting that you found it boring. Even more interesting will be your reaction when you try to give it another go. It seems like something that would be up your alley.

    Paperback Reader: If you wait until you're married to read it you could almost use it as a self-help book.

    Frances: The dream is something I need to remind myself of when I get annoyed with DC. After over 10 years living within a 15-minute walk of Dupont Circle, my experience here is going to change so much once we move this month “out to the country” of upper NW.


  5. Joan Hunter Dunn May 9, 2010 / 2:03 pm

    So lovely to read a review of Greenery Street. I keep meaning to walk down the actual street it was based on and decide which house they lived in… I did enjoy it when I read it – on my honeymoon.


  6. kissacloud May 9, 2010 / 2:40 pm

    Thanks for reviewing this, Thomas. I had been wondering if it was worth reading, as a few of the reviews I'd read had pinned this down as boring. I think my reaction will pretty much be the same as yours (because I know you were a little disappointed with Mariana, which I was, too).


  7. mary May 9, 2010 / 5:42 pm

    Gosh, I thought I was the only person in the world to have been bored by Greenery Street – but completely agree with Skirmishofwit. Too fluffy for me, and Felicity was such an airhead!
    I know what you mean about your dream city -I still pinch myself sometimes because I'm so pleased that I'm living in London (and I'm not going to tell you how many years it is since I moved here from the dismal North-west!)


  8. Thomas at My Porch May 9, 2010 / 10:09 pm

    Joan: That is hilarious that you read it on your honeymoon. Although much better than if you had read On Chesil Beach–which wouldn't have been good for a honeymoon, but it is fantastic if you haven't read it.

    Kiss a Cloud: I am a little surprised that this one seems to induce boredom. I enjoyed it, just didn't think it was a brilliant book.

    Mary: Trust me I was no big fan of Felicity, but I did love putting her on a budget and balancing her books. I find paying down debt perversely satisfying.


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