A Petrol Scented Spring by Ajay Close is a brilliant work of fiction that has a multitude of layers and is set in various different timeframes from the early 1900s onwards. Based on true facts she has gathered, Close has written about an unconventional love triangle featuring two very unconventional women. These women, whom the cold-hearted doctor, Hugh Watson, fall for (Arabella and Donella) are in his life at separate times. Arabella is a strong-willed suffragette who initially meets Hugh in the prison hospital he runs. She is an extremely strong character with a clear voice and loud opinions. She is, in my opinion, the only character who doesn’t go under any real change throughout the book as she is already the person she is destined to be.
The struggle for suffrage is portrayed through Hugh’s treatment of the women who come into his prison, when he force feeds them. The way they suffer through the unpleasant experience over and over again is only one example of their strength and passion for the cause. Arabella and Hugh’s complicated relationship highlights the hold a captor may have over their victim. She is held in isolation and Hugh provides the only warm conversation she receives – whether this develops feelings of love or dependency is open to interpretation but it is more likely to be the latter.
The prison where Hugh works and lives is a dark, cold, hopeless and uncompromising place, reflecting his own character. He adds to the ominous energy of the place even as it simultaneously drains him. Hugh is at its centre. Although he has chances to turn things around, he is hindered from any positive action by his stubborn and clinical attitude.
Donella begins the book as a woman who wishes for an ideal marriage but by the end of the narrative she craves instead an ideal career as a doctor. Her development throughout the novel is spurred on by Hugh’s cold and indifferent treatment of her throughout their marriage. This strengthens her and leads her to discover new paths which she can take in life; a journey which would have been difficult for any woman of the time to make.
The narration of the book moves around between the different perspectives of the characters. Donella, her sister Hilda, Arabella and Hugh all narrate some part of the novel. This gives us a 360 degree view of the relationship Hugh has with his wife and why it crumbles. At some points, it is difficult to tell whether Arabella or Donella is narrating, as the switch can sometimes be undetectable at first and this emphasises how, despite having contrasting qualities, they are extremely similar. This slightly confusing style of narration highlights how intertwined the lives of the women are, even though they have never met. It can be confusing to the reader trying to discern who the story is actually about, but by the end it is obvious that the focus of the novel is on both women and their journey:
I still don’t know whether he was done for before we met, whether his heart was already claimed, or smashed. Whether the love story pieced together in these pages is mine, or hers.
Hugh represents the society of the time as he doesn’t believe in the power and intelligence of women. Arabella goes on to help gain the vote for women and Donella trains as a doctor and becomes successful in her field. They both represent the best aspects of women and how they can break free from their individual restraints. Their separate paths never cross but simply run alongside each other in this excellent portrayal of oppression, love and – eventually – freedom.