My rating: 7/10. Possibly generous, but I liked it on several different levels, and thought its flaws were mostly editorial. It feels rather like a next-to-last draft, still very raw and not quite completely tweaked and perfected, but overall reasonably well done.
Don’t judge a book by its cover. This is a brutal story and this is an ironic cover; the two little girls are symbolic of the superficial sweetness which hides all sorts of dark emotions and human wickedness.
This book made me uncomfortable on a lot of different levels, but I read through regardless; Sylvia Murphy is a natural storyteller, and despite the flaws in this ambitious book (flaws which I feel could have easily been fixed by an interested editor) it held me to the very end, and surprised me often enough that I sat up and paid attention. Murphy does predictable with a twist than can leave you shocked and appalled but still engaged; though I figuratively turned my eyes away a few times I readily turned them back.
Young Candice Hargreaves has grown up in pre-WW II Palestine, child of British expatriates. While the family is materially well-off, due to her father’s fruit importation business, and life is in the main easy and pleasant, there is a dark cloud forming over their fragile world. The political atmosphere was charged and ready to explode as the pro-Zionist movement which was eventually to see the annexation of Palestinian territory for the creation of Israel gained power. The British civil government of the region was increasingly challenged by grassroots Palestinian protest groups; open violence is a hairbreadth away.
The Hargreaves family, though outwardly normal enough, is deeply dysfunctional on an emotional level. Candice’s youthful troubles find no sympathy from her distant parents; as she reaches adolescence she turns more and more for comfort to her Palestinian nurse Leila, and, inevitably, to Leila’s handsome teenage son, Naseem, who works as the family’s houseboy. Candice and Naseem become infatuated with each other with predictable results; Candice’s passionate assertion that she wants to marry Naseem and settle down in the countryside to raise his babies engenders an unexpectedly violent response.
Candice – Candy – is very much a victim of circumstance for the rest of her life, but she refuses to acknowledge defeat; she’s a survivor. Her life turns and twists and ends up in unlikely places, but I found I readily suspended my disbelief and became fully engaged in seeing where this troubled heroine would end up next.
Not a masterpiece, but definitely a diverting read. I wouldn’t call it “pleasant” – graphic depictions of violence and sex (including rape) keep this from being a complacent read – but the actions fit the times and their inclusion took this tale to the next level. An interesting, seldom used setting. Boundary-pushing topics, including emotional and physical abuse of children and incest (though the incest is not at all what you’d expect, and is delicately handled.) I often found the characters a bit awkward and over-the-top; a good editor could have helped with that. We are “told” rather than “shown” a lot of the time; the novel’s best passages are those in which the author lets events flow without telling us what we should be thinking about them. The plot has enough twists to keep it from being totally predictable; I appreciated the boldness of the author in taking her heroine to the extremes that she did.
This is now the third book I’ve read by this author, the others being The Complete Knowledge of Sally Fry (reviewed earlier), and The Life and Times of Barly Beach, and I still hold her in high regard. Her voice is individual, wry, and often savagely funny. She has a lot to say, and I quite enjoy her perspective. I think that with a little backing from her early publishers she could easily have become a bestseller; she seems to have just barely missed a few of the final steps which would take her there, which is a shame, as she has an individual, quirky voice which appeals on numerous levels.
Here is the novel summary from the author’s website, sylviamurphy.co.uk/candys-children :
A wealthy Palestinian businessman, a middle-aged rock star, an Australian university lecturer, a nun, and an English aristocrat – why are these five ill-assorted people meeting up in a stately home in Yorkshire?
They are the children of Candy Price, one time film star and recently dowager Countess of Penmore. She has been murdered by an assassin’s bomb on a mysterious visit to Tel Aviv and they are gathering for her funeral – an event that will change all their lives one way or another. For they all have personal issues to resolve as a result of their mother’s colourful and defiant life. This has stretched from the partition of Palestine, through World War II in England and a miserable marriage to a fighter pilot, to being married to a Hollywood film star in the sixties, to having an affair with the heir to the Penmore title.
The story is told through action before, during and after the funeral. The five offspring have never all been gathered together before, as the Countess was prone to lose custody battles which led to her children being brought up by their different fathers. As we learn more about their disparate lives, it becomes apparent that each of the children has a different perception of their mother as a result of their upbringing.
And here is the author’s note:
Why did I write Candy’s Children?
Candy’s Children is a story that has haunted me for years, ever since, as a growing child, I listened to stories told by my grandparents, my mother and her sister, about events in Palestine before World War II. It was only when I was a grown woman that I realised how closely those events might have affected my life, and saw a way to write the story that was being related to me. This story is based on a true one about a British family of fruit importers who, by chance, had left for their annual leave in England just as the early months of the war began to affect the expatriate communities of the Middle East. These expatriate Europeans lived a comfortable life, either engaged in commerce or in the armed forces, and had very little idea of what was to come with the onset of the World War, and the implementation of the post-1918 agreement to turn Palestine into Israel. It became dangerous to go to parties, or to spend too much time at the lido – the part of the shore they made their own by anchoring two swimming rafts off the beach and installing a well-stocked bar on the landward side. How do I know? I have photographs and cine films of myself and about a dozen other suntanned toddlers laughing in the shallows, watched over by mothers and nurses. It was all fun and laughter until the time came when their cars were wrecked in riots (more photographs); British policemen were kidnapped and flayed alive; Palestinians who associated with Jewish people found their property looted.
Here my imagination takes over. In the midst of this chaos a young British girl, Candice Hargreaves, falls in love and becomes embroiled in events she doesn’t understand. The result is a still-born child, then a horrific war-time sea voyage to Liverpool, arriving in a country where nobody cares about her, or knows who she is. Abandoned by her awful family she learns to make her own way in a world that offers little in the way of comfort or security.
The next part of the story follows Candy through the years of World War II. The events are still picked out of the memories and stories that were told to me years later – sheltering from bombs under the table in Reading Station waiting room, life in the WAAF, a diet of potatoes, sharing lipsticks and nylons, wrecking a parked bomber with a carelessly driven lorry – it’s all true. And the tragedy of how the services dealt with the “welfare” of the girls who became pregnant by pilots who never came back.
Also true is the post-war period when Candy sets about making a fatherless family unit work, only to have it destroyed by the return of the father of her wartime child. There really was a job in a film studio, with all the attendant glamour and excitement, leading to a divorce and a new marriage and a life in Hollywood – okay, I made a lot of that part up, but we did know the film stars and directors personally – I still have their autographed photographs.
I didn’t have to make up London in the sixties, rock bands and music festivals, new styles of clothes, or the increasing muddle and terror in the Middle East that drove refugees like young Naseem Fahy to England. I did make up the identity of a young viscount who fell in love with a film star, but not the type – London was full of them as well – well-meaning, well-educated, dazzled, led astray…