callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

We’ll Read Again: Living in the 1940s

Dame Vera Lynn tops the charts, Dad’s Army is still being re-run on BBC2 and novels set in the 1940s continue to pour off the presses. Already this year I’ve read La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith and Joan Bakewell’s All the Nice Girls. Here are three more.

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters *L

If I hadn’t enjoyed The Night Watch so much, if The Little Stranger hadn’t been so cried up, I doubt if I would have persevered with this book beyond the first two chapters. Nothing happens! Chapter 3 and page 97 before a significant event. It opens in a Rebecca-ish way with I first saw Hundreds Hall when I was ten years old. Unlike other books with a house at its heart (Brideshead Revisited, China Court, even The House at Riverton) one is not drawn in and fascinated from the start but wonders where this is going. Once it was clear that a frightful thing was at work in the house I read very fast to get the story. It was horrible but not as frightening as it should have been and irritatingly unresolved by the end. I was careful not to look at any reviews before reading, so nothing has prejudiced me against the book. On finishing, I did read several and I really will not say, as some people seem to, ‘Sarah Waters is a good writer (she is!) therefore this must be a good book but I’m reading it wrong’. For me it’s five hundred pages too long, I’m astonished it’s on the Booker short list and glad I wasn’t tempted by all the pre-publication offers to buy it.

Another disappointment. I’m a sucker for books with ‘garden’ in the title and this one came recommended by Geranium Cat. Gwen is thirty five, a professional gardener. After the death of her mother she volunteers to leave her job with the RHS in bomb-smitten London to work for the Women’s Land Army growing potatoes in an overgrown Devon garden. The idea of the ‘lost garden’, created secretly, perhaps by someone killed in the First World War, is a very romantic one. I liked very much the flower imagery used throughout the book and the litany of plant names which reads like poetry.

This is a painful story of love and loss which sadly rang false for me on so many levels that I longed to finish it. I assume the author has researched this but I’m not convinced that Gwen’s work on diseased parsnips would have been carried out at RHS headquarters in Vincent Square. The RHS had acquired Wisley in 1903 and then as now research took place in laboratories there. I found it very hard to believe that Gwen could have secretly and single-handedly restored the lost garden at Mosley. It stretched credulity that Land Girls would be able to get away with doing as they pleased during wartime or that frightened soldiers would tell anyone they were frightened. Nor do I think that a woman in the 1940s would feel about Virginia Woolf as many women do today; it’s the kind of retrospective projection of modern ideas I particularly dislike.

Oh dear, I don’t want to be horrid about someone’s carefully crafted book but it really didn’t work for me.

Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans was bliss to read after the other two because it’s funny, although there’s plenty of wartime sadness in it, too and my favourite character dies. Welsh Catrin (real name, Cathy Pugh), has escaped the valleys to live with an artist in London. Having discovered an unsuspected talent for script writing, she works on the film the book is about, one of those black and white heroic dramas about the Dunkirk evacuation intended as propaganda to stiffen morale at home and encourage America to come into the war. The name of the film changes throughout the book as does the script; the cynicism of the whole project is remarkable, the details very amusing. We meet ageing actor Ambrose, still seeing himself as a leading man; Edith, former dressmaker at Madame Tussauds; Arthur, Lance Corporal in the Catering Corps, seconded as military adviser; the abused twins whose story the film is based on. Each story is interesting in itself, each linked to the others.

The book is written with great style and assurance; the Ministry of Information scenes kept reminding me of Put Out More Flags. Whether she is describing the Blitz or the bleakness of the Norfolk coast (where the film is partly shot) Lissa Evans is utterly convincing. I loved the exchanges between the film-makers, the subversiveness of Londoners, Ambrose’s wonderful vanity. If I have a criticism it’s that the book doesn’t have a strong plot but amounts to a very long description of things happening. Everything is so well described though, whether funny, poignant or horrifying, that it’s a pleasure to read and I’m very impressed. Love the cover, too.

Their Finest Hour and a Half was longlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction, 2009. I’ve never heard of any of the books which made the shortlist.
Tags: 1940s films, helen humphreys, lissa evans, sarah waters

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