This novel is set in London during World War II and its main protagonist, Stella, has the best hair of any character I’ve met!
“Nature had kindly given her one white dash, lock or wing in otherwise tawny hair; and that white wing , springing back from her forehead, looked in the desired sense artificial – other women asked her where she had had it done; she had become accustomed to being glanced at”.
Her story is told with the help of other characters, Robert, her lover, Roderick, her grown son, Harrison, the agent who tells her that Robert is a spy, and Louie a young woman who is intertwined through the story.
Immediately the story introduces Harrison and Louie who meet in the park whilst listening to a concert. Louie is a married woman who’s husband is away in battle leaving her to entertain herself. She is very much alone as her parents were killed in a bomb strike. Loneliness causes her to seek solace in the arms of strangers. She is not shy in coming forward and tries to strike up a conversation with Harrison who is sitting near her. He is obnoxious towards her which only serves to intrigue her further. The story then follows Harrison as he goes to meet Stella in her rooms nearby. She is scared of the meeting and feels threatened. Harrison tells her that her lover, Robert, is a spy and that he will not do anything about it as long as she does what he asks. The book then develops the story of Stella trying to work out if this is indeed true, for she can not believe it.
The author intertwines major events in the war into the story but it is the everyday experiences of Londoners that I found the most impactive. The description of existence in war time London is so evocative that surely it can only have been written by someone who lived through it?
“They had met…throughout that heady autumn of the first London air raids. Never had any season been more felt; one bought the poetic sense of it with the sense of death. Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was down fine”.
“The night behind and the night to come met across every noon in an arch of strain…the hot yellow sands of each afternoon ran out slowly; fatigue was the one reality. You dared not envisage sleep”.
“Apathetic, the injured and dying in the hospitals watched light change on walls which might fall tonight”.
“Those rendered homeless sat here they had been sent; or, worse, with the obstinacy of animals retraced their steps to look for what was no longer there”.
The description of the slogans which we know so well is particularly powerful I think, certainly for me, “…faith came down to a slogan, desperately worded to catch the eye, requiring to be pasted each time more strikingly on to hoardings and bases of monuments“. I don’t think the purpose of those slogans has ever been more emotionally explained to me.
At times the reading of this book felt difficult, like I was trying to read Chaucer and not quite understanding the sentence, only barely the words. But overall I found the story fascinating, the descriptions vivid and the female characters particularly wholly developed. Louie in particular I enjoyed because there was no judgement on her and how she behaved, she was treated sympathetically I think. I am sure plenty of women left alone during the War, and very alone, with the real fear of death at any moment sought solace or to prove that they were alive whilst they still were. The transience of life and how that impacted on people is very evident. Stella on the other hand is the more mature character but she too illustrates the double standards in society at the time in how she is treated because of assumptions which she never corrects.
I am pleased that I have read this book and I would recommend it though with a warning that some of the prose is a bit like treacle! But it is worth persevering through, even if for a real sense of the war!
I came to his book through reading of Susan Hills’ “Howard’s End is on the Landing” (which I have previously reviewed) where she speaks very highly of the work of Elizabeth Bowen, who I had not heard of. And strangely I have realised that Bowen, born in Dublin, lived out most of her final years in Hythe who’s bookshops I shall be blogging about next week!
Funny old journey that I am on!
Bookshop Challenge }} Ali Smith }} Zadie Smith }} EM Forster }} Susan Hill }} Elizabeth Bowen