Sentimental Memoir - With a Dash of Lemon

By , Pamela Marsh is a former Monitor book editor.

A HOUSE WITH FOUR ROOMS by Rumer Godden New York: William Morrow 320 pp., $18.95 SIT down with a Rumer Godden novel and reality disappears in a most satisfying way. Or does it? It's clear from the two books she has written about her own life (``A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep'' and ``A House With Four Rooms'') that her fiction has always been firmly rooted in her experience.

The first volume, ``A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep,'' is mostly an account of the days of her childhood and of her first marriage. Set in India, it is permeated with her love of that country, a cruelly tried but enduring love.

This second volume opens with her arrival in 1945 England with two small daughters, little money, but abundant talent and determination. She finds homes, schools, friends, her place in the literary world, goes back to India for the filming of her novel ``The River,'' does a stint in Hollywood, and dabbles in farming (``it's all petrol and killing'').

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Quoting from ``A House With Four Rooms'' is irresistible; it satisfies the reviewer's hunger for a companion who can be nudged in the ribs and begged to ``listen to this, listen to this.''

For instance, I like her description of a woman speaking Portuguese, ``... it sounds like a little horse trotting,'' and her account of the birth of a pig, ``a neat little pink parcel. Never could anything have been more perfectly packed; forelegs and backlegs were folded against the chest and stomach, ears folded back against the head, tail tucked in. Mrs. Pig gave the package a thwart; ears, tail, legs were shaken out. Next second a tiny complete piglet was standing upright...''

There's a Christmas story too that cries out to be noticed at this time of year. Just after V-E Day, Rumer Godden invited two young German prisoners of war to supper on Christmas Day. Mrs. Phelps, her housekeeper, disapproved. Adamantly. She and her little boy, Patrick, would keep to their room:

``Josef and Hans arrived spruce and clean. They had carved, with their penknives, a little wooden angel for each child, including Patrick.''

After supper, they sang carols. First Patrick stole in to listen, then his mother. Josef, due to return to Germany, had a son he had never seen, so Rumer Godden gave him some of her young nephew's outgrown clothes, ``at which Josef burst into tears. He had had nothing to take back to his unknown boy. Mrs. Phelps went out. She came back and silently laid something on Josef's lap, something for which I knew she had saved her coupons and scant money for a long time, Patrick's new pair of shoes.''

Rumer Godden's sister, friend, and fellow-writer, Jon Godden, called her stories a mixture of ``children, animals, flowers, houses, a little sentimentality and piety all written and done as you only can do it.''

Jon's assessment fits this memoir too, though mention should also be made of Rumer's gift for telling an absorbing story, for tapping exactly the right word squarely on the head, and for adding just the right touch of lemon to cut the sentimentality - except of course when it comes to the Christmas spirit.

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