A Novel Idea – The Lady in the Van, by Alan Bennett

Image Source: http://www.goodreads.com

Technically not a novel, more a story or script, and more recently made in to a movie released in 2016. However, the wonderfully written book deserves to be shared and I hope that you give it a chance.

Bennett tells the story of Miss Shepherd, who lived in a van in his London driveway from the early 1970s until her death in 1989. The book is a hilarious account of their bizarre relationship and the weird and wonderful antics of Miss Shepherd, who was never short of an opinion, a quick quip and a lot of attitude. Her sarcastic and somewhat sour personality would drive some people to run in the other direction, but Bennett developed something of a relationship with her after allowing her to move her van in to his driveway. This one line sums up their relationship perfectly for me ‘One seldom was able to do her a good turn without some thoughts of strangulation’.

The gap between Bennett’s social standing and Miss Shepherd’s somewhat lower status brings added humour to the tale where hilarity is generated in spades as their two worlds collide. It’s clear from his reaction to her and his fondness of her that Bennett never lost his working class upbringing, despite now residing in a swanky London suburb. We all see characters like Miss Shepherd in our day to day lives, but how many of us stop to lend a helping hand? We see people stating their ‘not in my backyard’ attitude and it’s refreshing when we see people go beyond that and accept a person for who they are.

A modest man, Bennett declined a Knighthood in 1996 and then refused to accept the award of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1998. In 2008 he announced that he was donating his archive of working papers, unpublished manuscripts, diaries and books to the Bodleian Library, stating that is was a gesture of thanks and repaying a debt he felt he owed to the British welfare state that had given him educational opportunities which his humble family background would otherwise never have afforded (ref: Wikipedia.org).

I will admit, I actually bought the book after watching the movie. I realised when leaving the cinema that I hadn’t read any of his books or plays and as I had enjoyed the movie so much I needed to explore his work (and also see how true to the book the movie actually was – pretty close I’d say).

Whilst his writing style is somewhat basic (in a good way) it is both deeply descriptive and hysterical at the same time. Due to his style, I enjoyed the book more than the movie, as it captures your imagination, conjurs up amazing images in your head, and allows you to get totally absorbed in the story. It’s a short book, and one that I found I could read in a day – I couldn’t put it down.

If you haven’t read any of his work and this doesn’t sound like the typical style of book that you would normally read, I challenge you to step out of your comfort zone and give it a go. At 96 pages it isn’t going to take up too much of your time, and who knows, a new Bennett fan may be born.








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