Archive for the ‘1960s’ Category

Marnie by Winston Graham ~ 1961. This edition: Fontana, 1980. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-615964-8. 253 pages.

Does that title sound familiar? It should. This novel was turned into the 1964 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name, starring Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery. I seem to recall hearing that Grace Kelly was Hitchcock’s first choice for the title role, but that she turned it down as she was already heavily involved with her arrangements to become Princess of Monaco, and it wasn’t felt quite suitable that she should play the role of a fictional thief.

For that’s what Marnie is, a thief, and a rather good one. Her modus operandi is the same each time: get a bookkeeping job in the office of some small business, plot out an opportunity for quietly absconding with the payroll or a large portion of the week’s income, then vanish, to reappear in another city with a newly invented identity.

Marnie needs money, quite a lot of it, more than she can get her hands on in the course of legitimate office worker employment, for she supports not only her crippled mother in a respectable separate establishment in Plymouth, but her secret (and possibly only) true love, an ex-racehorse, Florio, living at a boarding stable.

Marnie is a woman with twisted and tortuous personal issues, which come to a head on secret identity job number four, in which she attracts the fanatical attention of two of her employers: the recent widower Mark Rutland, and Mark’s despised playboy cousin, Terry Holbrook. Marnie lets herself get involved with these two disparate men, something utterly against her hands-off policy in the past, and things come crashing down, as Mark discovers her embezzlement, covers for her, and then uses his knowledge to blackmail her into marriage.

1st edition cover, 1961.

Terry sniffs around, knowing something off is up, and ultimately brings about a full exposure of Marnie’s wicked past, but not before a lot of psychological drama, revealing the true reasons for Marnie’s sexual frigidity and her inability to form normal relationships and so on. (Not very surprising spoiler: Mom’s involved.)

This is a decidedly convoluted novel, and it’s rather a compelling read, though at a few points I was silently shouting to the author, “Stop, already! Don’t add another twist!” It’s all rather dark, and occasionally deeply disturbing (the honeymoon spousal rape scene, the horrible death of Florio), and for quite a while there it looks like the ultimate tragedy will indeed play out, as Marnie mulls over ending it all in the most final of ways.

Winston Graham spares us that, and even offers us a glimpse of the possibility of eventual peace for our desperately damaged heroine, once she has confronted all of the repercussions of her past.

Another interesting novel. Very readable. Definitely a period piece, giving a fantastically detailed picture of a certain segment of 1950s’ British society.

My rating: 9/10. It lost a point because there was a fair bit of tell versus show, and some of the drama flourished into melodrama, but all in all “good job” to Graham for successfully putting forward such an audaciously engaging scenario.

I haven’t actually seen the Hitchcock film version (I understand that it is not particularly true to the novel except in the broader way), but I find it extremely intriguing that the story has just been reworked (again with a lot of liberties regarding the original) into an opera by Nico Muhly. It’s playing at the Met RIGHT NOW. I wish I lived closer to New York; I’d go see this in a flash.

Oh, yes. A word about the author. Winston Graham is indeed that Winston Graham. Poldark, anyone?

 

 

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Hand in Glove by Ngaio Marsh ~ 1962. This edition: Collins (Crime Club), 1962. Hardcover. 256 pages.

Prissy Mr. Pyke Period, elderly confirmed bachelor, delights in his comfortable life and in his reputation as a skilled crafter of charming epistles, in particular the exquisitely tactful condolence letter.

Disturbing indeed to Mr. Period’s carefully nurtured savoir-faire is the discovery that his latest letter has gone somewhat astray, being delivered to the wrong party, whose loved one shortly thereafter turns up gruesomely dead, crushed to death under a sewer pipe in a drainage ditch right outside Mr. Period’s very window.

The usual disparate assortment of potentially suspicious characters for this sort of traditional whodunnit is on hand to spin out the tale and give Ngaio Marsh’s pet team of detectives – Alleyn and Fox – their usual round of interviews, before their inevitable and apparently effortless solving of the crime. (Even easier than usual, one presumes: the clues in this one were large and glaring.)

Suspects include the tittering Mr. Pike, the murderee’s objectionably hearty sister, a pair of vaguely “Beatnik” young degenerates (Moppett and Leonard), Mr. Pike’s sprig-of-the-minor-aristocracy secretary Nicola, aspiring young artist Andrew, Andrew’s mother (Desirée, Lady Bantling, who also happens to be the murderee’s ex-wife), Bimbo Dodds (Lady Bantling’s third and current husband), and a few etceteras.

There are minor red herrings and various complications, including a boisterous scavenger hunt to celebrate April Fool’s Day, during which the fatal event takes place, but it doesn’t take long for our detectives to zero in on the guilty party. Peace presumably now returns to the village.

All in all, not one of Ngaio Marsh’s A-list, though, as with Agatha Christie’s oeuvre, even the B-list is readable. As with most of Ngaio’s books, Hand in Glove is mildly humorous throughout, which makes up for a lot.

By midnight the winning pair had presented themselves with their prize, a magnum of champagne. They were inevitably, Moppett and Leonard, all smiles, but with a curious tendency to avoid looking at each other. Leonard was effulgent in the matter of cuff-links and lapels and his tie was large and plum-coloured. Bimbo looked upon him with loathing, gave them both drinks and put a jazz record on the machine. Leonard with ineffable grace extended his hands towards Desirée. “May we?” he said and in a moment was dancing with her. He was a superb dancer. “Much too good,” she said afterwards. “Like the really expensive gigolos used to be. He smells like them too: it quite took me back. I adored it.”

Bimbo, sulking, was then obliged to dance with Moppett who made business-like passes at him. These exercises were interrupted by the arrival in straggling pairs of the rest of the treasure-hunters, Nicola and Andrew being the last to come in: looking radiantly pleased with themselves…

My rating: 5/10

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Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt ~ 1966. Follett Publishing, circa 1970s. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-695-49009-5. 192 pages.

Here we have that familiar creature, the vintage bildungsroman. A fine example, to be sure, but a member of a vast common flock.

There are numerous other titles of this ilk still to be found on high school library shelves everywhere; this is not a condemnation, merely an observation.

Somewhere in the United States – midwest? New England? – seven-year-old Julie has just lost her mother to an unspecified illness which they both have shared. Youngest of a sibling group of three – older sister Laura is seventeen, brother Chris the middle child – Julie is sent off to the nearby country home of her mother’s unmarried sister, Aunt Cordelia, a stern and highly regarded teacher at a rural school.

The novel follows Julie along as she navigates her way through the usual childhood and adolescent experiences of someone growing up in the American small-town world of the mid-20th Century. (We never get a firm date as to when this all happens, though clues point to it taking place in the 1940s or 50s. Possibly earlier?)

Young Julie has been an indulged small child with all of the expected attitudes and mannerisms thereof; her aunt strives to mold her young charge into responsible and thoughtful personhood. She succeeds, though it takes ten years. We leave teenage Julie as a younger version of Aunt Cordelia, albeit with a happier love affair in hand than Cordelia experienced in her previous turn.

In the course of this well-presented, gently paced micro-saga (there is a major clue in the title, that “Slowly” is most apt), our heroine comes to terms with her inner flaws and weaknesses, and grows into a likeable young woman of some accomplishment.

Bumps in young Julie’s personal road have included that early traumatic loss of her beloved mother, her older sister’s departure into happy married life with diminished focus on a younger sister, a mildly ne’er-do-well alcoholic uncle living in close proximity to her aunt’s house, an episode of dealing with a mentally challenged and uncared for classmate, and a deeply regrettable boyfriend in high school, who eventually gets one of Julie’s peers pregnant.

Luckily true love is waiting for our heroine, in the person of childhood friend Danny, who sticks around and comes through when most needed. Happy married life beckons, once the two of them finish college, etcetera. One wonders if Julie’s writing ambitions (for of course this book is chockfull of what may well be autobiographical verisimilitude) will be eclipsed by her embrace of her upcoming traditionally housewifely role?

Who knows. Perhaps she’ll have it all…

Well-written in general, with a few far reaches as plot threads are neatly gathered together. An engaging read, but nothing to cross the road for, as it were. Enough complexity for an “adult” read; the “young adult” intended audience likely accounts for the occasional stutters in the plotline as things are tweaked to provide moral teachings.

The biggest drawback to me was that there was absolutely no real sense of time or place; the setting is blandly generic. It’s a moderately engaging character study from first to last, but it doesn’t go deep enough for true memorability.

My rating: 6.5/10

Up a Road Slowly did win the Newbery Medal in 1967, and Irene Hunt was a well-respected writer of teen-targetted novels, her most well-known being the Civil War coming of age story of a young man, Across Five Aprils, 1964, which was a Newbery Honor Book (runner-up) in 1965. Six other YA novels published between 1968 and 1985 are well-regarded but not as well-known as the two Newbery recipients.

 

 

 

 

 

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Chocky by John Wyndham ~ 1968. This edition: Michael Joseph, 1968. Hardcover. 184 pages.

This was John Wyndham’s last novel published during his lifetime, though there have been several others pulled from the “not quite ready” pile, dusted off, tidied up and published posthumously.

I wish I could say that this book is brilliant; one of the best; a fitting end to Wyndham’s string of creative and very readable sci-fi almost-disasters.

But it isn’t.

I found it to be a bit of a dud, in fact.

Caveat: the following rantlet is stuffed with spoilers.

Young Matthew, 11, the adopted child of loving parents and the older brother of an exceedingly pert younger sister, Polly, starts exhibiting some unusual behaviour. He talks (apparently) to himself, pausing between comments as if listening to another side of the conversation. He starts asking precocious questions, such as why are there two separate sexes versus a much more efficient hermaphroditic, self-fertile single parent, and where is the earth exactly in relation to everything else in space. He starts to do his math homework in binary code, and makes telling comments regarding the inefficiencies of the internal combustion engine.

A psychiatrist is consulted, for his family is starting to fear that some sort of mental illness is developing – for who knows what his background is, after all? Maybe his biological parents were…you know…subnormal…

Turns out that Matthew isn’t exhibiting schizophrenia at all; the voice inside his head belongs to a being from another planet way out beyond the boundaries of known space, seeing as thoughts/mind communications aren’t bound by pesky restrictions such as speed of light or sound.

Chocky, as Matthew christens his alien mind-friend, turns out to be an advance scout of another civilization, a eco-missionary, in fact, questing mentally across the void of space to find other thinking creatures, and to share a vision of better living (nuclear energy! hydroplanes! solar power!) with them. Matthew has been chosen as a communicant because of his open young mind. Too bad he’s just a naïve child, as his unusual behaviour leads to all sorts of complicated situations.

The popular press gets turned on to something weird happening after Matthew, who can’t swim, miraculously rescues himself and Polly from drowning, Chocky having taken over Matthew’s movements at the critical time and turning him into a superhuman swimmer. A similar plot twist involving artistic skills is floated.

Eventually everyone gets tired of all the press attention; Chocky decides to end the relationship in order to de-complicate Matthew’s life – he/she (Chocky’s sex is vague) has been allowing himself/herself to get too emotionally involved with the subject, not at all scientific, you know.

And that is pretty well that.

Potentially creative premise, which went absolutely nowhere.

I kept waiting for things to get properly interesting; they never did. This might have made a better short story than a novel, and it turns out that that’s close to the actual background of Chocky. First published as a novella, it was padded out to novel size the following year, no doubt in order to take advantage of the well-selling Wyndham name.

Points off for lame plotline which drops the ball early on, and more points off for the sexism which is absolutely overt in this novel, with some very sketchy attempts by the author to explain the weaker-sex complications of the feminine psyche, with all of the female characters – wee sister Polly, Matthew’s adoptive mother, his aunts, his art teacher – being depicted as silly, meddlesome, frequently foolishly moody and/or hysterical, and definitely lower on the intelligence food chain than the Big Important Men who get all of the plum roles.

Oh, yeah, there’s also a pointless mysterious kidnapping, as some secret “officials” whisk the young lad away and subject him to a series of injections – truth serum? or? – before decanting him onto a street in a faraway city.

Yawn.

4/10. Generous, because despite its poorness (John Wyndham was capable of much better!) I did read it to the end. Luckily it is a shortish book.

Margaret Atwood has a slightly kinder take on Chocky, and Wyndham’s stuff in general, in this 2015 article from Slate.

 

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The Satan Bug by Alistair MacLean ~ 1962. Originally published under the pseudonym Ian Stuart. This edition: Fontana, 1974. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-612510-7. 223 pages.

A certain small thrift store which is on my book hunting rounds has long had a corner shelf dedicated (as the faded cardboard sign states) to “Men’s Books”, and though I didn’t pick up this particular Alistair MacLean there, I well might have, for this is absolutely a guy’s book, with bells on.

Which is not to say that women don’t read him as well, and with enjoyment, but if one were to mark down the names of those purchasing MacLean’s books over the years, I’ll bet they’re predominantly male.

For this is properly masculine 1960s’ capital-T Thriller, an Action Novel in every sense of the term, full of Manly Passion and not a little Violence; the already damaged hero (“Old war wound acting up, pay it no mind, I’ll be fine…”) gets smacked around severely. He engages in a series of brutal fisticuffs with assorted larger-than-him villains, is pistol-whipped, tortured, thrown down from high places, kicked, stabbed, shot at…pretty well the works.

1962 1st edition U.K. dust jacket, with MacLean’s pseudonym on cover.

But does this stop him? No! Of course not.

Broken ribs strapped up, oozing bandages in place over the rawer body parts, multiple concussions blithely dismissed, Pierre Cavell soldiers on and gives as good as he gets, brandishing his trusty Hanyatti revolver – which I’d never  heard of before, you learn something new every day when reading these old books, and hang on! – Google says that there ain’t no such thing; AM made it up! – so there you go; not much else in this gloriously ridiculous novel is all that plausible but I confess I am disappointed just a little bit to find out that the deadly Hanyatti is mythical, because that’s the sort of trivia that sticks in one’s brain, ready to be dusted off one day in the future to bedazzle in appropriate conversation…oh, heck, I’m digressing madly, where was I? –  to triumph at last in saving the day not just for Britain, but for the entire world.

Take a breath. Excerpt time.

“It’s a gun all right,” I assured him. “A Japanese Hanyatti nine-shot automatic, safety-catch off and indicator, I observe, registering full. Don’t worry about the scotch tape over the mouth of the barrel, that’s only to protect a highly delicate mechanism. The bullet behind will go through it, it’ll go through you, and if you had a twin brother sitting behind you it would go through him also. Your forearms on the table.”

Scotch tape over the barrel? The bit the bullet blazes out of? “To protect the delicate mechanism”? Methinks our author is having some private fun of his own, here.

Not only is our action hero tough, he’s relentlessly witty, quipping his way through the tale much to my easily-amused readerly pleasure, though his fictional comrades occasionally express annoyance at Pierre’s excessive verbal frivolity.

Movie poster, 1965.

So many of Alistair MacLean’s fast-moving and violence-containing thrillers read like ready-made action movie screenplays, and by golly, look here; someone else thought so too. With the scene changed to America versus Britain, and the hero’s stalwart – and stunningly beautiful – wife changed to a girlfriend, and who knows what other tweakings. “Loosely based on” most likely applies; I haven’t seen the movie myself, but can tell from the description that it departs from MacLean’s version in a number of ways, though the key idea remains.

Which is that in a top-secret research facility in rural England, not one but two deadly toxins have been created, based on botulism and polio. One dissipates and loses its virulence over twenty-four hours (Type A, in the red-topped flask), the other (Type B, blue top), is rather more deadly – a saltspoonful has the potential to turn the earth into a barren, people-less planet.

Both toxins are stolen, apparently by a madman intent on using them to enforce his demands for world peace – these things trump the nuclear weapons being brandished between the super powers – but the reality is something rather more prosaic.

Our Pierre sorts it all out, and – was there ever any doubt? – saves the day.

One doesn’t read Alistair MacLean for anything but entertainment, and The Satan Bug is all of that.

8/10, for the unstoppable Pierre Cavell, not to mention his charming spouse, Mary, who plays her part in the drama with appropriate grit and steely resolve, all the while maintaining her lovely looks, even under batterment by the bad guys. (See? That’s supposed to be her on the cover of my Fontana paperback, way up at the top of the post. She’s lost her shoes, it seems…)

Here are a few extras I bumped into while poking around on the internet: The original 1962 dust jacket of the American first edition, and two more 1965 movie posters. Enjoy!

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The Owl Service by Alan Garner ~ 1967. This edition: Collins, 1998. Paperback. ISBN: 0-00-675401-5. 224 pages.

Alan Garner’s melding of Welsh myth and 1960s’ teen angst tale has, over the years, become something of a legend of its own.

Pondered over by literary folklore scholars and a wide range of students from its publication fifty years ago to today, analyzed to the nth degree, filmed in 1969 with immense popular success, this novel just goes on and on.

Here’s the set up.

Teenage English step-siblings Alison and Roger accompany their recently married parents to Alison’s dead father’s house in Wales. It’s technically Alison’s house now, for it was left to her in her father’s will, bypassing her mother to avoid death duties. Roger’s father is divorced from his first wife, who was blatantly unfaithful to her husband; this situation has left Roger with a serious chip on his shoulder.

On site are three Welsh employees: gardener Huw, housekeeper Nancy, and Nancy’s teenage son Gwyn, odd-job boy.

Huw is viewed by the English visitors as something of a half-wit; he tends to do a lot of standing around gazing into the distance, and is continually making strangely phrased pronouncements. (Big Hint: Huw is not the fool he seems. Or at least not in the conventional sense.)

Nancy seems normal enough, if a bit high-strung. She is very much wound up about class distinctions, and warns her son Gwyn about a.) fraternizing with lowly Huw, and b.) getting chummy with upper-class Roger and Alison.

Gwyn pays this no mind, being attracted to all three of the forbidden ones for vastly different reasons, though he is about to run afoul of Roger. (And Roger’s dad. And Alison’s mother. And his own mother. Well, pretty well everybody, really. Except for Huw. This is another Big Hint.)

Shortly after the newly blended family’s arrival at the Welsh country house Alison, in bed with a minor ailment, hears persistent scratching in the ceiling of her room. Gwyn investigates, going up into the attic through a hatch in the ceiling. There  is evidence of rodent activity, but more intriguingly, Gwyn finds a complete set of elaborately decorated china dishes stacked in a corner. He brings a plate down with him to show Alison, and hey, presto! – we’re off.

The plate depicts an arrangement of flowers, but Alison immediately sees that the pattern also forms an owl, and she is mesmerized by it. She decides to trace the pattern onto paper, matching up body and head, and when done cuts the completed paper owl out. Over and over she does this, with some mysterious results: the paper owls disappear overnight, as does the pattern from the plate. Hmm…

Here’s the plate. For real. Seeing this pattern is what set folklorist Alan Garner off on the plot of this novel.

This is where Garner steps in with his retelling of the tragic Blodeuwedd story from the medieval Celtic folklore epic The Mabinogion. In this story, a man is cursed to never have a human wife. His wizard uncle then creates a maiden out of flowers for his nephew; the two wed, but the maiden falls in love with another man, and the two plot to murder the husband. This sets off another curse in which the flower maiden is turned into an owl, doomed to spend eternity replaying the story in each new generation. (Or something to that effect.)

So here we have Alison being possessed by the shade of Blodeuwedd, with Roger and Gwyn taking on the roles of her two lovers. Metaphorically speaking, that is. No actual lovemaking takes place, not on the page, anyway. And not really out of scene, either, from what hints Garner gives us. Though there is no doubt that everyone is thinking about it.

All. The. Time. Teenagers, raging hormones, the whole supernatural replaying of a tragic love triangle. Yeah, it’s a hot, hot summer, in more ways than one.

There’s a load of other stuff all going on concurrently. Alison’s confliction with her attraction to Gwyn (and maybe to Roger?) which her mother fears and forbids. (Interesting side note on the mother: she drives the story from the background; we never see her, though all of the characters refer to her and appear to view her as one who must not be upset or disappointed or crossed in any way.)

Roger’s father, though wealthy, is of a lower social status than his new wife, which is good for some malicious digs from here and there. Also, his divorced wife is notoriously promiscuous, going from man to man (or so rumour has it) with the result that son Roger is a prickly mass of resentment and fear that anyone will mention her to him.

Gwyn is feeling stuck between two worlds himself. Brought up by his mother, father unknown, he has managed to attain a scholarship to a prestigious school, and has flourished there and surpassed his own mother in social standing, which she bitterly resents, though she has wished this for him.

Roger and Gwyn bristle at each other, swapping insult for insult. In between times they go about together in relative harmony. Alison floats about, never committing to anything, tracing and cutting out her paper owls with increasing intensity, and giving by her very presence – all unawakened virginity – a generous dose of sexual tension to the scene.

As the summer goes on, the supernatural echoes from the awakened curse grow louder and louder until things come at last to a dramatic head. The climax is cut short by an unlikely saviour, in a much-too-simple way, and we are left at the end of this sketchy sort of tale wondering what the heck just happened, really.

An interesting novel, this. It really shouldn’t work, but for the most part it does. The ending is utterly inconclusive; the spell is laid much too easily; we know this can’t possibly be the final solution to Blodeuwedd’s reawakening.

Or is it?

This is a tough one to define a numerical rating for. As a novel, it’s hard to really get into, hard to find a conventional narrative thread; it’s all muddled up.

But on the other hand, one can’t quite look away. If you have the background knowlege of the Bloedeuwedd story, things click a lot more readily; later editions have all sorts of forewords and afterwords and author’s notes, but to read it cold (as it were) must have been a bit mind-bending when the book first came out.

Promoted as a “young adult” book, this one is indeed that. Older adults will find it intriguing, too. As might younger readers, though it might well induce a few nightmares. Those claws scratching in the ceiling, those clover flowers made of claws, those vanishing owls…

Brrr.

Okay, then.

7/10.

 

 

 

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Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham ~ 1960. This edition: Penguin, 1995-ish. Paperback. ISBN: 0-140-01986-3. 204 pages.

Okay, let me say this right up front, so you’ll know I’m coming from a place of love in the critique which follows.

  1. I am a John Wyndham fan.
  2. I like science fiction as a genre and at one time read an awful lot of it.
  3. I like science fiction because (a.) it can be a whole lot of fun because it allows for creative world building or alternate histories, and (b.) it has some reliable general rules, first and foremost being that the “science” must be logical in relation to whatever the fantastical world is it is taking place in.

This book drops the ball on that last one. So much so that I have to break down and call this a Very Silly Book, even taking into account its pro-feminist theme, which, as a female reader, I find is always a nice thing to bask in.

Trouble With Lichen begins with a funeral, one attended by vast crowds of mourning women, sobbing out their sorrow at the loss of one of their own. “Our beloved Diana…her unfinished work which she now can never finish…irony of fate…will of the Lord…” intones the presiding bishop, as the choir croons and the distaff masses nod and sigh.

Fourteen years earlier, young Diana Brackley is graduating from high school. Both beautiful and brilliant, she breaks the heart of her mother by deciding to go on to university, following the calling of the biochemistry lab rather than the domestic kitchen.

Newly employed at the prestigious research labs at Darr House, presided over by Francis Saxover, a personable middle-aged scientist with a terminally ill wife and two adolescent children, Diana flourishes in her chosen field.

One day, while working with samples of lichen collected in Manchuria, Diana stumbles upon an intriguing discovery, and divulges it to her boss. His interest takes a nosedive when his wife dies, and Diana continues her investigations after hours, as it were, not wanting to involve Francis in what might be pointless investigation when he is still in the throes of grief.

But Francis is not so devastated as all that. He is also tinkering with the lichen, and he and Diana independently come up with the same conclusion: they may have discovered a natural anti-aging compound – “antigerone”.

The implications are astounding, and require some serious consideration, in particular because the lichen in question exists only in a small geographical area, in a Chinese-held territory close to the Russian frontier. Which means that the production of the antigerone will always have to be extremely limited, unless someone can crack the biological code and replicate the active ingredients in the lichen. In the meantime, the antigerone remains a closely held secret, with only Diana and Francis privy to its effects.

Stuff happens. The years roll by. Diana inherits a small fortune, and quits her employment at Darr House in order to set herself up as the head of a an exclusive beauty salon catering to the female connections of wealthy and powerful British gentlemen.

“Nefertiti” is a posh salon indeed, and as the years go by, its longtime clients look better and better in comparison to their peers. Almost like they are, well, younger. Like time has slowed down for them. Very interesting.

Yup. Diana is dosing herself and her best customers with antigerone. But – get this – without their knowledge. Kind of like the way Francis Saxover has been dosing himself and – secretly, without their knowledge – his two children. But that story is about to break.

Francis confesses all to his now-adult children, who are not as shocked as you would think, merely insisting that their respective partners be given the potion as well. Which gives us one of the most delicious episodes of this goofy novel when Francis’s money-hungry daughter-in-law Jane, bitterly disappointed to find out that she may have to wait a very long time indeed for Francis to die and leave his son a lavish inheritance, pulls a very sneaky trick to gain the secret of the antigerone for her own nefarious and profitable purposes.

Diana then divulges her own plot, which is that she has intended her regiment of life-extended rich ladies to be the leading force of a new world for women, in which they will be able to either defer having children until after they have a career, or to have a full life after their offspring are safely raised. Yes, they can now do everything! Antigerone will buy them the one thing that has stood in the way of female empowerment all these centuries: TIME. (Okay, I can kind of buy into that myself. Wouldn’t it be loverly, to have a twice-as-long lifetime to get it all done in?!)

The sticky point for me was that these particular women are all under-employed already. They fritter their days away, la la la la. Diana insists that once the boredom of a century or so of this really sets in these ladies will set themselves afire with enthusiasm for doing world-changing stuff. Me, I don’t think so. Why aren’t they already hopping to it, seeing as their offspring are well off their hands with nannies and all? Negating that little theory about women wasting their best years in child rearing being what’s stopping them from taking part in real world-changing work.

We then proceed to have press conferences, a riot or two, kidnappings, torture, death threats, and, finally, an assassination of sorts. China finally wakes up and takes notice of the lichen situation and proceeds to slam the door shut for any further harvest. End of story? Well, not quite.

What an utter snob Wyndham comes across as with this concoction. Wives, daughters and mistresses of the elite are worthy of the antigerone; all others in the lower strata, so sorry, but you get to maintain the status quo. Because, well, just because. But that’s okay, because it would be wasted on you anyway, and your menfolk would never stand for it.

This tale is so ridiculously illogical. The science is never adequately explained; Wyndham takes the ring road round the core of that particular city. There are great gaps in the narrative. No one reacts as they would in real life. Everybody’s very, very restrained, so über-British stiff-upper-lip, refusing to get too excited, except for the odd well-behaved mob, easily controlled by a handful of stern bobbies. The men are all very cool with the women getting the good stuff; it takes chapters and chapters before someone says, “Hey! Men might benefit from this thing, too!” You think?! The Chinese caught on right away, once they twigged to what they had on their territory. The Brits – well – took them a while.

Whole thing is silly. Silly, silly, silly.

Points off for absolute failure to think the plot through in all of its potentially intriguing ways, and for failure to apply logic where most needed.

Points back on because it is pretty funny in places, and yeah, it is pretty cool to have the women getting all the perks, and because Diana offhandedly dismisses marriage as something she might do later when she gets around to it. (Though that might be up for debate; her anti-marriage stance might not be as absolutely disinterested as she makes out.)

Point in favour for letting our lady-scientist also be deeply interested in beautiful clothes and cosmetics.

Another point in favour, for a fairly decent “surprise” ending. Which I must say I saw coming with flags flying from quite some way away. (Wyndham likes to tidy things up.)

Still silly.

6/10.

 

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