Posts Tagged ‘Light Fiction’

pomp and circumstance noel coward 001Pomp and Circumstance by Noël Coward ~ 1960. This edition: Pan, 1963. Paperback. 287 pages.

My rating: 9/10

Havoc under the sun…

Samolo – a lazy, sun-drenched island in the South Pacific where nothing ever really happens…
Until suddenly it is announced that the Queen and Prince Philip are to pay a state visit. From then on chaos reigns. And the arrival of the curvaceous Duchess of Fowey, who brings out the beast in every male, only adds confusion to confusion.

Here we have an easy candidate for the most unexpected book of 2014.

I can’t quite recall where I acquired this tattered and very well read paperback; it just sort of appeared one day at the top of a book stack, like the frothy sort of thing that it is, effortlessly rising above the (comparative) heavyweights below.

As this seems to be my year of reading mostly lightweight novels, and its year of publication was so-far blank in the Century of Books list, what could I do but succumb?

I was initially a little uneasy as to whether I could sustain my interest for the whole thing, as it started off at frenetic high speed, all very much a-laugh-a-minute, and that sort of style can get tiresome early on, especially if the writer bobbles, but Coward, old pro that he was by his point in his career, kept up the pace marvellously well, and completely won me over.

“Charming” is an overused term in describing the light novel, but in this case it is most apt. With a bit more consideration, charming isn’t complex enough, for there is a lot of snark here, too, of the most readable sort.

Maybe a page scan is in order, to give one a sample of the contents.

First, an overview.

The curtain rises over the (completely fictional) small South Sea island of Samolo, an idyllic tropical paradise populated by a happy-go-lucky native population and a large colony of British nationals who make up the bulk of the government. For Samolo was never conquered in the warfare sense of the word; the inhabitants merely welcomed the superior managerial style of the inhabitants of that other, colder isle and gladly made way for a dual society of semi-equality. The native upper classes mingle easily with the Brits; the ones a bit farther down the social scale are apparently quite thrilled to provide staffing for the expatriates in their various cottages, villas and stately homes. Everyone is very hail-fellow-well-met, with a bit of resigned-but-not-bitter bitching about the occasional laziness of the servants and their tendency to wander out of paid employment when the mood strikes them providing reliable tea table and cocktail party conversation. (Yes, this is most definitely a fantasy.)

Our narrator, one Grizelda Craigie (Grizel), is the happily married forty-something wife of banana grower Robin. Coward sustains the first-person voice of his female narrator beautifully, something I had serious qualms about when I realized that this was what he was undertaking.

Grizel moves in the upper social circles of Samolo, being on best-friends basis with the British Governor’s wife, Lady Alexandra (Sandra), so of course is the first person to be confided to when the news of the impending Royal Visit breaks.

This is just the start of the drama, for in quick succession Grizel must cope not just with the professional stresses (so to speak) of her highly placed friend, but with an incident in which her small son is mixed up in a very below-the-belt assault on a schoolmate (either triggering or in retaliation for a sharp knock on the head by the other party; the parents on both sides predictably receive conflicting stories from the superficially wounded lads), by the sudden confession of a bachelor friend that he has used her name in telegrams inviting his latest (aristocratic and very prominently married) paramour for a visit, with the intent that the lady actually spend her nights with said bachelor while pretending to occupy Grizel’s guest room, and by involvement in the island’s amateur dramatic association as it plans an elaborate aquatic pageant to be presented to the Queen and her consort, despite prognostications of squally weather soon to come.

Mix in an assortment of Samolan and expatriate characters of all walks of life – from gardener to Prime Minister to journalist to ex-secret-service-agent-turned-sugarcane-planter to aristocratic Duke, and add for good measure a brusque English nanny, numerous beloved-but-high-maintenance visitors, maddening letters from Mummy back home in England who always seems to know the latest Samolan news well before there-at-the-source Grizel, an intense lesbian who is openly smitten with our narrator, the various clashing personalities of the Dramatic Society members, and an epidemic of chicken pox striking in the most unexpected quarters.

It’s all highly silly, but increasingly enthralling. There are moments of sincerity here and there: the portrayals of both Griselda’s and Sandra’s marriages are warm and believably true-to-life, and the family scenes with the children are hugely enjoyable. Most of the sarcasm – which is in relentless but in general quite gentle – is reserved for Grizel’s outer circle of friends and acquaintances, with some deep digs being got in here and there at anti-monarchists both in Samola and back home in England; Noël Coward’s staunchly pro-monarchy patriotism is unabashedly on view.

Several homosexual couples play significant roles, with stereotypical behaviour paraded in full technicolour. I felt just a bit ashamed to find these characters and episodes so amusing, but comforted myself with the thought that the depictions were coming from a writer of that persuasion himself, for Noël Coward was well known to be gay, though always politely reticent about his private affairs.

Pomp and Circumstance was Coward’s one and only attempt at novel writing. One rather wonders what inspired this project, amidst all of the plays and musical compositions. It definitely works, and in my opinion deserves to be shelved alongside the older but similarly giddy Wodehouse tales, as more than slightly goofy, cheerfully amiably, decidedly literary entertainment.

I had a difficult time deciding where to take a page scan from, as much of the joy in this thing is in the building of the story and the connections and contexts of each succeeding episode, so perhaps a bit of Chapter One will be best. This will give a taste of what is going on here; it definitely gets better.

And keep your era-appropriate sense of humour dusted off. One can find much which might be viewed as potentially offensive and politically incorrect these five decades on. Disturbingly vast quantities of alcohol are consumed, mostly in cocktails with oddly evocative names – the “Horse’s Neck”, presumably a long sort of drink, seems exceedingly popular – though sometimes straight from the bottle. Cigarettes are prominently smoked during every emotional and romantic moment, too.  If these sorts of things bother you, best to stay clear. Everyone else, it’s a richly glorious vintage romp.

Pomp and Circumstance has been reissued numerous times since its first appearance in 1960, though it appears to be out of print at present. A quick look online shows it easy to find, and I’m guessing the larger library systems will still have copies. Enjoy!

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Prefacing this sure-to-be-rambling post with this information, for those of you who wonder what I’m actually talking about way down below. As different as can be in time periods and settings, but all at heart clinging to a similar traditional structure, that of the Gothic Romance Novel. The three books under discussion will be:

  • Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer
  • Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent
  • Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart

All of these are velvety dark, thrillingly romantic (for the most part), highly predictable (ditto), and guiltily enjoyable tales.

Perhaps this won’t be the most sober-minded book discussion, which would indeed be fitting, for these books are not High Literature in any sense of the term, and are therefore free game for a little bit of mild mockery, all in good fun, because I did read them willingly and with general pleasure, though occasionally that pleasure was all about their fulfillment of stereotypical Gothic Romance Scenarios.

I have had recourse to our ever-handy Wikipedia to quickly define the main elements of a proper traditional gothic novel, and by applying the criteria to the books in question we can get a nice overview of how well the authors fulfilled the requirements of this assigned genre.

So, cribbing from the article and adding some of my own descriptive notes to those provided, we generally must have:

  • Virginal Maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past, and later discovered that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family.
  • Older, Foolish Woman – who often has charge of or advises the Virginal Maiden, or acts as an Awful Warning due to past errors of judgement, which Virginal Maiden may or may not take into consideration
  • Hero – who may or may not be misrepresented as The Villain for the earlier stages of the plot
  • Tyrant/villain – who may or may not be disguising his (her) True Evil Nature for the earlier stages of the plot. Usually male, occasionally female.
  • The Stupid Servant – acts as comic relief by asking seemingly stupid questions, transitions between scenes, brings news, messenger, moves plot forward. Sometimes takes on form of Humble Social Inferior or Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, well-meaning but ignorant of darker designs of Villain.
  • Ruffians – always under the secret (or not so secret, depending on if he is the Disguised or the Obvious species) control of the Villain
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (says Wikipedia, but in more modern gothics I have noticed that the Clergy figure is often absent, being replaced by a Doctor or Lawyer or other Figure of Social Authority, acting under the influence of the Villain)
  • The Setting – The setting of the Gothic Novel is a character in itself. The plot is usually set in a castle, an abbey, a monastery, or some other, usually religious edifice, and it is acknowledged that this building has secrets of its own.
  • And, if I may add to this list, The Secret. There is generally some Great Big Secret which the heroine – er, Virginal Maiden – either sets out to investigate or unwittingly stumbles upon. Sometimes (frequently) The Secret is, of course, that of her own mysterious past.
  • Also added by me: The Forced Marriage. Another common element I’ve noticed in my own perusal of gothics. So many times the heroine faces matrimonial peril, either by being forced to marry the Disguised Hero (who she then realizes she loves in Chapter Ten), or by a Weak Male Character under the control of the Villain, or by the Villain himself.

So, let’s see how these measure up. I’m going to present these in order from my least to most favourite.

Warning: There may well be some significant spoilers here and there, but as the plot twists are all highly predictable by anyone with the least bit of experience with the genre, I doubt if having these confirmed ahead of time will lessen one’s reading pleasure. 😉

Cousin Kate georgette heyer 1968Cousin Kate by Georgette Heyer ~ 1968. This edition: The Bodley Head, 1968. Hardcover. 318 pages.

My rating: 6/10.

Front flyleaf blurb, Bodley Head edition:

Finding that her youthful appearance and the lack of accomplishments caused by a childhood spent following the drum prevent her from securing a position as governess, Kate Malvern, recently orphaned, gratefully accepts an invitation from her unknown aunt Minerva to make her home at Staplewood, the seat of Sir Timothy Broome, Minerva’s elderly and invalid husband.

On arrival at Staplewood, Kate finds herself in beautiful and luxurious surroundings, and is treated by her aunt with a kindness which is regarded by those best acquainted with Minerva with considerable surprise. At first grateful, Kate gradually becomes uneasy, and with the arrival on the scene of Sir Timothy’s nephew, Mr. Phillip Broome, the plot rapidly thickens. Minerva’s motive for bringing Kate to Staplewood is revealed, and her machinations are brought to a dramatic conclusion.

Okay, let’s see how Cousin Kate does on the Elements of Gothic Fiction scale.

  • Virginal Maiden – check! No secrets as to origin, as Kate is legitimately accepted as a family connection. She is an orphan, reasonably young (24), beautiful (“a flower-like countenance”), appears younger than her age, is sexually pure but well aware of the “facts of life” from her experience as a soldier’s daughter, and is definitely kind and sensitive, though she also fearless and well able to stand up for herself in socially awkward situations.  A most promising heroine.
  • Hero – check! Our Hero turns out to be one of the disguised ones, who operates under a cloud of misunderstanding engineered by the Villain, or, in this case, the Villainess.
  • Villainess – check! No mystery here, though it takes a while to reveal her true nature. It is, of course, suspiciously friendly Aunt Minerva.
  • Humble Social Inferior – Moving the plot along is Kate’s old nurse, Mrs Nidd, who bring’s Kate’s need of succour (she’s just been fired from her first job and has little prospect of finding another due to lack of training or experience) to Aunt Minerva, setting things in motion. Mrs Nidd reappears later in the story to aid Kate in unravelling The Secret.
  • Doctor – weak rather than deliberately evil, and under the complete influence of the Villainess, the Doctor plays here merely a supporting role
  • The Setting – It is 1817, mid-Regency. Most of the action occurs at a stately country home, Staplewood, with Aunt Minerva established at the centre of things controlling all of the domestic strings, and separate wings housing the frail Sir Timothy and the family son and heir, beautiful, erratically-mannered Torquil, who is under the fulltime care of the Doctor, for reasons no one is prepared to elaborate on. Mysteriously locked doors, male screams in the night, random shots being fired, a suicide-worthy lake, a lonely country setting leading to easy isolation of characters not wanted to be out in public circulation by the Villainess.
  • The Secret –  Insanity! Torquil’s. Kate has been tagged by the Villainess to be a suitable wife for her mentally unstable son. She (Kate) is to produce a son and heir to the Broome family fortune, after which Torquil will be put into ever-deeper seclusion as his insanity worsens (the Doctor is quite sure it will), and Kate will be allowed to discreetly seek consolation elsewhere.
  • The Forced Marriage – see The Secret.
  • Great Big Climax – Revelation of Secret! Murder! Suicide! Horror-stricken Virginal Maiden flees to arms of Hero! And once all of the details of The Secret are revealed, a blissful future is embarked upon via Glorious Holy Matrimony between the two who have suffered so many setbacks to the progress of their romance through initial misunderstanding and deliberate machinations of the Villainess, who has now had her ultimate comeuppance.

My verdict: While Cousin Kate had its appeal, and was quite nicely written and full of Heyer’s dependably engaging Regency slang. Kate is a likeable enough heroine, but the whole thing dragged on just too long for my interest to be sustained completely; the plot was desperately predictable, and the whole thing became rather depressing, what with its dependence on a mysterious insanity and the ditherings of all those concerned regarding the proper treatment of the sufferer.

The ending is rather brutal, as Heyer fatally disposes of two of her characters under horrific circumstances. The imagination of this reader was boggled regarding the possibility of a happy future for the heroine and hero with that sort of emotional baggage to deal with.

I rated Cousin Kate at 6 because of Heyer’s competent handling of her setting and the quality of her writing. Some serious themes (position of women/class distinctions/treatment of the mentally ill) were touched upon but never thoroughly examined – not really to be expected in this sort of light novel. But for a light novel it had some desperately dark strands.

Hard to classify, really. I know I said “boring” in the header, and that seems to be my ultimate feeling. Rather flat. Heyer could do much better.

tregaron's daughter madeleine brent 1971 001Tregaron’s Daughter by Madeleine Brent ~ 1971. This edition: Doubleday, 1971. Hardcover. 251 pages.

My rating: 7/10. I bumped it down just a bit because of the inclusion of Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity, a plot strand which I found exceedingly annoying for some reason. (Perhaps because a similar character plays a major role in Heyer’s Cousin Kate?)

Flyleaf says:

Excitement, drama and suspense were only part of Cadi Tregaron’s new life. It had been a sunny afternoon when she glanced from the cliff where she sat reading and saw below her in the sea a sight that would change her life.

Set in England and Italy in 1910, this is the story of a young English girl who by accident starts to unravel the unknown elements in her grandmother’s past and is brought by the mystery to the faraway city of Venice. There, among the gondolas and canals, she slowly comes to comprehend the meaning of two strange and puzzling dreams – dreams that seem to hold the an eerie and menacing prophecy of the future.

Elements of Gothic Fiction included:

  • Virginal Maiden – check! Our heroine, Caterina (Cadi), daughter of a half-Italian mother and sturdy Cornish fisherman father, is young (late teens), beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And (spoiler alert!) she does turn out to be the descendent of the Italian nobility. No doubt because of this innate blue blood, our heroine has just naturally developed far beyond the expectations of her humble place in the world. Her language is surprisingly upper class (due to the convenient society of a cultured retired governess in the neighbourhood, who has taken the bright young Cadi under her tutorial wing), and she is fluent in Italian (learned from her grandmother), which comes in handy later. And she starts the story off as a half orphan, mother dead some years (fell off a cliff with grandmother in a tragic accident – sob!) and loses her father as well soon after we enter the story, which precipitates the now-fully-orphaned Cadi into the next stage of her saga.
  • Hero – check! This one is the conflicted type, and is disguised (occasionally deliberately) as a villain. Classically gothic  introduction of hero and heroine involving heroine being pulled up onto horse and forced to cling closely to rock-hard-muscled hero as they gallop to rescue of hero’s uncle who is caught in a dangerous current in his borrowed sailboat. (This is the life-changing thing which Cadi saw from the cliff.) Bonus first-meeting episode: as Cadi, her father, and the hero row out to the rescue, the bodice of Cadi’s dress rips, leaving her lily-white skin exposed in a rather delicate area, and causing the hero to take a deep breath and force his gaze away, manfully resisting the surge of testosterone this incident inspires. Predictably, hero’s taciturn silence is misunderstood by heroine – “He thinks I am below his notice!” Oh, no, darling, that ain’t it.
  • Villain – check!  Disguised variety. Cadi’s Italian relation, Count Chiavelli, who is surprisingly warm and welcoming to the little English chit who is apparently going to bump him from both his title and his fortune – unless, of course, she can be enticed into a marriage with the Count’s weak-natured son – shows another side to his nature as this plan fails to advance.
  • Hero’s Sidekick – not at all stupid, though a slight social inferior, the Sidekick keeps things moving by his unexplained presence at key points of the saga. He is eventually assisted in his efforts by Female Friend of Virginal Maiden, as they join forces to assist Hero in rescue of Virginal Maiden from the Villain’s foul clutches.
  • Ruffians – check! The Villain has a full complement of brutish henchmen, but as bad guys in gothic novels are always slightly slower (and much more stupid) than good guys, these particular ruffians are continually foiled by the Hero, Sidekick and Maiden.
  • Lawyers – These People of Social Authority – we have an English and an Italian version – are in general full of good intentions and quite helpful to Heroine, though they are completely hoodwinked by the Villain. I would like to put forward that a too-trusting lawyer = weakness, so this element is included, albeit in a very minor role.
  • The Forced Marriage – The Virgin is pressured to marry the Villain’s weak-willed son, in order for the Villain to get his hands on the fortune the Virgin is coming in for, and also to keep the title in the family.
  • The Setting – Gorgeous settings, full points for those. We start out in a humble cottage in a little Cornish fishing village – towering sea cliffs above it, treacherous currents swirling offshore – progress to turn-of-the-century London as the heroine is adopted by the beneficent and wealthy family whose patriarch she helped save back in chapter one, and end up in Italy in a gloomy Venetian palazzo, with a final nighttime chase scene by boat through mist-shrouded canals.
  • The Secret – Hmmm, aside from the confusion around the true nature of the Hero-disguised-as-Villain, the only other secret of major import was that Granny was almost murdered by the Villain’s sister, and that honestly came as no surprise, being telegraphed strongly right from chapter one. Young Man with Symptoms of Insanity was also something of an obvious twist, and quite wonderfully similar to the same figure as depicted in Cousin Kate. (Do we need to add him to our list of shared elements?)

My verdict: A better-than-average modern gothic, and an excellent first-novel-in-the-genre by – drumroll! – a male author writing under a female pseudonym.

For “Madeleine Brent” was actually Peter O’Donnell, British mystery novel and comic strip writer, and creator of the pop culture character Modesty Blaise.

O’Donnell’s publisher, Ernest Hecht of Souvenir Press, pleased by the success of O’Donnell’s thrillers, asked his author to try his hand at writing gothics under a female pseudonym. The Madeline Brent novels were a decided success, and Peter O’Donnell eventually wrote nine. All are set in the Victorian or immediately post-Victorian era, and feature young women in exotic locations seeking the truth about their identity. O’Donnell’s authorship was kept secret until after the publication of the last one, Golden Urchin (featuring a Caucasian girl raised in isolation from mainstream society among Australian Aborigines), in 1986.

An interesting side-note, this revelation of the gender of the author, and one which sheds some light on the structure of the Tregaron’s Daughter. Do I dedict a technically-minded male slant in – just one example – the inclusion of the details about construction of gondolas which allow them to be operated from one side by a single person?

Great details in the setting throughout, and the action was well maintained. The plot was (predictably) groaningly predictable, but my interest was held despite the lack of surprises. Good job, Mr. O’Donnell!

nine coaches waiting by mary stewart 1958 001Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart ~ 1958. This edition: Coronet, 1973. Paperback. ISBN: 0-340-01439-3. 317 pages.

My rating: 10/10. Now this is how you write a gothic! Mary Stewart, after her previous year’s rather dire first attempt, 1957’s Thunder on the Right, pulls up her authorial socks and takes another run at the genre, this time succeeding brilliantly.

Chicago Review Press blurb:

A governess in a French château encounters an apparent plot against her young charge’s life in this unforgettably haunting and beautifully written suspense novel. When lovely Linda Martin first arrives at Château Valmy as an English governess to the nine-year-old Count Philippe de Valmy, the opulence and history surrounding her seems like a wondrous, ecstatic dream. But a palpable terror is crouching in the shadows. Philippe’s uncle, Leon de Valmy, is the epitome of charm, yet dynamic and arrogant—his paralysis little hindrance as he moves noiselessly in his wheelchair from room to room. Only his son Raoul, a handsome, sardonic man who drives himself and his car with equally reckless abandon, seems able to stand up to him. To Linda, Raoul is an enigma—though irresistibly attracted to him, she senses some dark twist in his nature. When an accident deep in the woods nearly kills Linda’s innocent charge, she begins to wonder if someone has deadly plans for the young count.

Applying the Gothic Fiction checklist yields some promising results:

  • Virginal Maiden – Check! Our heroine Linda is indeed young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. And orphaned, too, which should really be one of the traits listed alongside young, beautiful, etc. etc. etc. No mysterious past, unless one counts Linda’s own concealment of her French heritage in order to pass for a strictly-English governess as required by her new employer.
  • Older Woman – Check! Elegant Madame de Valmy, who acts as an extra set of eyes and legs for her wheelchair-bound spouse, brings Linda into the household and complicates the plot by her alternating moments of warm we’re-all-women-here-together friendliness and cold putting-the-help-in-her-place slap-downs to our heroine.
  • Hero – Check! We actually have a choice of two Heroes, either or both possibly of the disguised variety, and in the interests of not spoiling the ending for those of you who haven’t read this, I will not say any more. Just that both are perfectly perfect for their chosen roles, and I was up in the air guessing as to which one was going to be the ultimate winner of the lovely Linda’s heart.
  • Villain – Check! The debauched old nobleman now confined to his wheelchair, of course. And he is masterful at disguising his True Evil Nature, though our heroine catches a disturbing gleam in his eye when he looks at his hapless nephew, the young Heir to the Family Fortune who has tied up the riches which the Villain would like to further his own ambitions.
  • The Servants – Linda finds herself associating with several useful servant-figures who fill her in on all the gossip and aid in her attempts to discover why her young charge, The Endangered Heir, is having so many close brushes with death. We have a chatty English housekeeper, who came to France some decades ago, and a sprightly local maid who has rather tragically (but usefully, as he drops some hints which can then be related to the heroine) fallen in love with the Wicked Henchman.
  • Wicked Henchman – One is indeed in residence, and he is secretly under the control of the Villain.
  • The Setting –  Time: The early 1950s. Place: A vast French château, isolated from all neighbours and tucked away in its own private forest among the craggy hills of the High Savoy in France. A steep, narrow, twisting road leads to the château, ideal for those sorts of engineered “accidents” where one’s automobile brakes unexpectedly fail, or where a pedestrian can be “inadvertently” run down on a one-lane bridge over a rushing torrent.
  • The Secret – How far will someone go out of personal and family pride, and for love for a piece of land?

This is one of the very best of Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels. Decidedly well written, with abundant clever humour, and an ongoing literary thread as revealed in the title, for the Nine Coaches Waiting reference comes from a rather obscure Renaissance play by Cyril Tourneur, The Revenger’s Tragedy, in which a poor but pure and beautiful young woman is tempted with the luxuries of palace life to yield up her virtue.

The parallels between the Tourneur scenario and the Mary Stewart gothic are not particularly apt, but as a poet’s daughter herself (did I mention that bit? – I don’t think I did) our heroine in the novel is of course a highly imaginative (and literate) type, and the snippets of the play included by Mary Stewart are most intriguing and set the mood of rushed passion and moral unease very well indeed.

Oh, think upon the pleasure of the palace!
Secured ease and state! The stirring meats
Ready to move out of the dishes, that e’en now
Quicken when they are eaten…
Banquets abroad by torchlight! music! sports!
Nine coaches waiting – hurry – hurry – hurry –
Ay, to the devil…

My verdict: Hands down, Nine Coaches Waiting was the best of these three novels, but they all had their moments, and are all nice diversions for those times when one doesn’t want to think too hard, and wishes to recapture those long-ago (for many of us – I know a number of my regular readers are my generational compatriots) days of teenage summer reading, wrapped up in these darkly sensuous – but really quite chaste, kisses being as far as our heroines go – gloriously suspenseful, absolutely predictable romances.

(Ha! Grammar police, sort out that last paragraph. I dare you! It boggles me, rather, but I will let it stand, as a challenge to those of you who would perhaps like to dissect it and see of it actually works.) 😉

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My vintage copy is terribly faded. The cover illustration depicts a female figure in long pink gown holding a pink parasol, against the backdrop of a white-columned mansion. (You may need to use your imagination.)

My vintage copy’s cover is terribly faded. The illustration depicts a female figure in long pink gown holding a pink parasol, against the backdrop of a white-columned mansion. (You may need to use your imagination.)

The Little Straw Wife by Margaret Belle Houston ~ 1914. This edition: The H.K. Fly Co., 1914. Illustrated by F. Graham Cootes. Hardcover. 217 pages.

My rating: 6/10

This fluffy vintage romance attracted my attention because it was the very first published novel by a writer I have been keeping an eye out for: Margaret Bell(e) Houston (the “e” of her middle name was dropped on later books), author of a number of romantic-suspense novels such as 1955’s Yonder (scroll way down, I was rather more rambling than usual that day), which I read last year and gave an enthusiastic rating to. (And, oh, look – there’s Phyllis A. Whitney again!)

Houston’s novels are still in a modest sort of circulation, with a number of them available as scanned e-books (see here for TLSW) and as print-on-demand paper books, but the originals are much more interesting to handle and read, especially when they contain illustrations, as this one does, to add to their period charm.

The Little Straw Wife was published in 1914, when the author was 37 years old; a comparatively venerable age for a first novel, it seems to me. (So many published writers seem to start so early, literally in their teens. I wonder what the average age actually is?)

Margaret Belle Houston was to write another dozen or so novels between 1914 and 1958, as well as short stories and poetry. She was something of a local celebrity in her home state of Texas, the partial setting of The Little Straw Wife and most of her other romance/drama/suspense novels.

This novel charges out of the starting gate with a lot of enthusiasm and dash, which is maintained for quite some time, though it gets a mite winded about three-quarters of the way through, and ends up gasping for breath in the final chapters.

We meet our heroine, Zoë, just as she locks herself in her room and kicks off her shoes and plumps herself down on her wedding bouquet. Obviously something is not going well!

Here, read for yourself:

littlestrawwife00housiala_0013littlestrawwife00housiala_0014littlestrawwife00housiala_0015Our heroine is writing this account in her “Honeymoon Diary” – a gift from one of the bridesmaids, a blank book intended to document the joys of the first nuptial excursion. Instead it is being used to record the reasons behind the bride’s refusal to go through with things – albeit just an hour or two later than the usual cold-feet-at-the-altar cut-and-run.

Apparently Zoë feels that she has married her groom under false pretenses, and she can see nothing for it but to call the whole thing off. The upshot of it all is that she begs her groom to go off on the honeymoon voyage all alone, while she herself attempts to establish her independence away from Aunt Emmeline, who has made no secret of the fact that Zoë is no longer welcome under the familial roof.

Then we are treated to a rather nicely done flashback, as our narrator relates her history, and how she came to be in the situation now before us.

So far, quite enjoyable stuff, and as Zoë goes off to make her way in the world, with her cast-off groom lingering benignly(?) in the shadows waiting for her to come to her senses, the tale unfolds intriguingly, as Zoë casts herself on the hospitality of an old school chum and proceeds to attempt to enter the work force.

Once our Zoë, after a number of false starts, is settled into a suitable occupation – social secretary for an ambitious nouveau riche Texas ex-ranch wife – the tale begins to shed some of its charm, as it turns into what can only be described as a mushy romance. It’s still frequently sweet and funny, and the heroine still has us on her side, keeping us smiling at her odd personal decisions and indecisive agonizings to Dear Diary, but an immense tidal wave of coincidence and Had-I-But-Known drenches this initially clever story in utter cliché. The ending made me blush deeply. It was absolutely too good to be true, all over I-love-you-darlings and happy-ever-afters. Oh dear!

Well, for a first novel it shows a decently polished style, and the woes of Zoë in her quest for financial independence are feelingly portrayed. There is a strong vein of humour throughout; some of the diary entries are a comedic joy to read. If it weren’t for those last few romance-novel chapters, this would be such a thing of joy in general.

As it is, it’s still a fun vintage read despite its almost-fatally-flawed degeneration near the end. I’m glad I went to the trouble of tracking down in the paper, as it were, but I can’t give it a terribly enthusiastic recommendation as a must-read, because it is just too much of a period piece in its ultimate clichés to be truly top notch as a modern reading experience.

My advice, if one is interested, is to try this one gratis in its online e-book version. This scanned edition includes all of the Cootes illustrations, and is as close to reading the original as one can get without shelling out one’s hard-earned dollars for the real thing. Probably not a keeper, unless one is intrigued enough by the progress of Margaret Belle Houston to want to have a full set of her works on the shelf.

I have several more of Houston’s later novels waiting to be read: Bride’s Island (1957) and Cottonwoods Grow Tall (1958), both of which were published after the very acceptable Yonder, and both of which appear to have received good reviews in their time.

I am anticipating some enjoyable reading from these, but am waiting for that elusive “right mood” to strike. I am saving them for a treat, I hasten to assure you, so that will tell you how I really view Margaret Bell(e) Houston’s writing from my small experience of her – full of promise and most likely to prove highly diverting.

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Tthe etruscan smile velda johnston 001he Etruscan Smile by Velda Johnston ~ 1977. This edition: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1977. Hardcover. 181 pages.

My rating: 6/10

I had read several of Velda Johnston’s mildly thrilling and sometimes simplistic “novels of suspense” before, so had tempered my expectations for The Etruscan Smile accordingly.

1975’s A Room with Dark Mirrors generally pleased me; the period detail of the heroine’s stewardess career and the doesn’t-miss-a-beat flow of the story kept me engaged enough to award it a thumbs-up and a 5.5 rating.

The Girl on the Beach, 1987, felt rather more awkward in plot and style; the author was a quite venerable 75 years old when it was published, and I theorized that perhaps she feeling rather tired of the whole writing-a-book thing. I panned the Beach Girl badly, mentioned that I was almost ready to cross Velda Johnston off my “light reading” list, and gave her a dismissive rating of 4.

Two years have passed, and the memory of my disappointing second encounter with the author has faded; enough so that when I came across this novel recently I was moved to give her another chance. And I am happy that I did; The Etruscan Smile was nicely done for its sort of thing, and reading it was no hardship at all.

A perfect sort of book for a waiting room sojourn; engaging but not challenging. It rocketed right along, and handed me a few surprises in the way of plotting that I wasn’t expecting, though I’m not quite sure that these worked out story-wise all that well. I did give the writer points for creativity; I could tell where she was going and the big picture she was attempting to embroider, even if she dropped her threads a bit here and there.

Mary Stewart this soundly second-rank writer isn’t, though there are bits here and there which remind me favourably of Stewart’s style. Our heroine is nicely independent and capable; but she does end up in the arms of a man, and one that she hasn’t known terribly long or particularly well – a favourite Mary Stewart closing scenario. Those brushes with death do tend to speed along romantic acquaintanceship, is all I can assume.

And I found this much more readable than anything I’ve experienced by Phyllis A. Whitney (see my last post, wherein I hand poor Phyllis her walking papers out of my personal book collection), though Velda Johnston was nowhere near as prolific or (apparently) as popular. Still, she (Velda) did manage to produce something like 35 romantic suspense novels, and so far out of the three I’ve read two have been acceptable; she’s now back on my list of promising minor writers, though I won’t be searching her out specially or paying more than bargain basement prices for any more of her books that I come across in my travels.

So – the actual storyline of The Etruscan Smile. Here it is, such as it is.

Samantha Develin has flown to Italy from New York, accompanied by her devoted German Shepherd, Caesar. Samantha has just learned that her older sister,  Althea, an accomplished artist who has gained a certain reputation as a painter-to-watch, has unaccountably vanished from the small rented farmhouse she has been living in for the past several years. No one seems to know where Althea has gone; the assumption is that she is off with a man; but Samantha immediately finds some clues that her beloved sister may not have planned her departure in a typical fashion.

A dashing Italian count – an old flame of Althea’s – appears out of the blue and puts himself rather unexpectedly at Samantha’s service. Another of Althea’s ex-lovers, an English archeologist, living close by, makes himself conspicuous by his continued presence, zipping in silently on his bicycle at the oddest hours of day and night.

These two men in particular and, to a lesser degree, everyone else she questions regarding Althea’s recent activities are rather cagy and evasive; everyone obviously knows something that they’re not divulging to Althea’s little sister. But what?

Samantha persists in her quest to track down her sister, and she soon comes to sense that perhaps something rather final has happened to Althea, though there is no evidence to support an act of violence or misadventure. Samantha must revisit her own past to unravel the tangled web which her sister had become bound up in; what she discovers is more bizarre than she (or we) could ever have imagined…

A hidden statue of an ancient Etruscan goddess plays an important role in the quest for Althea and the climactic scene; kudos to the author for not doing the expected with that particular clichéd suspense novel scenario. And kudos as well for not making everything all sunshine and light and picturesque Italian travelogue; there are some darkish situations in this short novel which add a certain depth to what could have been pure fluff. And the dog was a nice touch, and well portrayed. (Total super-dog; too good to be true, really. Hint: one may require a Kleenex near the end.)

An adequately engaging story to while away an hour or two on a summer afternoon; a long lunch hour today was sufficient to polish this one off. I must confess that the strongest impulse I felt upon completion was to revisit one of Mary Stewart’s Greek novels, to enjoy the next level up in this particular cozy-escape-lit genre.

 

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the sea-gull cry robert nathan 001The Sea-Gull Cry by Robert Nathan ~ 1942. This edition: Knopf, 1942. Softcover, with French flaps. First edition. 214 pages.

My rating: 3/10

A short, lightweight novella by the onetime-popular Robert Nathan. I confess that I have in the past read and quite enjoyed his most famous publication, 1940’s Portrait of Jennie (see condensed spoiler-laden précis here), but The Sea-Gull Cry is infinitely more sentimental, and, to be brutally honest, not particularly memorable, either in plot or in execution.

Nineteen-year-old Louisa and her seven-year-old brother Jeri are refugees newly in America, from war-torn Poland via England. Children of an English mother and a Polish nobleman, they are in reality a countess and count, but the family castle has been bombed, leaving their mother interned forever in its rubble, while Papa has perished defending his country against the evil German invaders.

Louisa and Jeri are bravely making a new sort of life for themselves. Desiring to get out of the crowded American city they arrived at some short time ago, they have taken their refugee relief money and are looking for a place to live along the seaside for the summer. They make it to Cape Cod, where they fall in with a gruff-mannered but hearts-of-gold older couple, the Baghots, who rent them an abandoned scow beached on an isolated stretch of sand.

Onto this strip of sand precipitously arrives one “Smith”, a jaded, middle-aged history teacher, (and a not very experienced sailor), who has just purchased an old sloop with the view to cruising up and down the coast for the summer, to escape from the stress of his unsatisfying job and the pervasive gloom of the situation in Europe. (The story is set just before American entry into World War II.)

Smith is caught up in a squall and violently beaches his boat, putting an end to his summer plans. But when he meets lovely Louisa he is immediately smitten; even more so when she pops out of her faded blue overalls to swim in a teeny tiny homemade bikini. Smith feels that maybe life isn’t so dull after all…but wait…why would Louisa look at a man old enough to be her father…?

Maybe because she is seeking something of a father-substitute, a romantically-older man?

It takes them a few chapters to get it all worked out, chapters in which small Jeri provides a side plot as he fights with the local children, makes friends with the Baghots’ young niece Meg, and has a brush with death as he sets out to sea with Meg on an old raft, seeking to sail back to Europe to rescue “the children” from the conflict.

Aw, how sweet.

Sure.

A little of that goes a very long way, and luckily this was a lightning fast read, being presented by the publisher with a large font, immense margins, and thick paper. It clocks in at 214 pages, but could probably quite happily fit onto 50 or so. (One speculates therefore that this was before any sort of wartime paper restrictions hit the American publishing market.)

That’s it; that’s the story; well whitewashed with slosh.

I don’t quite get Robert Nathan’s obvious popularity in his time, because this was pretty sub-par stuff in the great scheme of literature-of-the time, unless it was as a writer of escape-lit-light for the stressed-out housewives of the 1940s and 50s. The Sea-Gull’s Cry seems the sort of thing that would be found serialized in the Good Housekeeping type of magazine of the day.

A contemporary review by Rose Feld of The New York Times had this to say:

‘The Sea-Gull Cry’ tells a tale that will hold you until the last page is turned. It will hold you because of Nathan’s rare art of drawing you into his own mood of tender contemplation of human beings and because you cannot let them go until you know what happens to them… And you will decide that this is more than a tender little love story exquisitely written; that it is a tale of exile and valor and spiritual rebellion that has more than surface significance.

I suspect I am myself a bit too jaded and cynical to really appreciate this sort of fiction; I find myself lifting an eyebrow when I read these other quotes by the author himself regarding his authorial motivation:

What I really want is to give comfort to people in this wilderness of death and trouble. And to myself, too. So, when I can, I take the poison and hate out of my books; but I hate, just the same. I hate violence, and tyranny, and vulgarity. I hate despair and destruction, and the writers who insist that that is all there is, there isn’t anything else.

and

It seems to me that I have always wanted to say the same things in my books: that life is one, that mystery is all around us, that yesterday, today and tomorrow are all spread out in the pattern of eternity, together, and that although love may wear many faces in the incomprehensible panorama of time, in the heart that loves it is always the same.

Fair enough; Nathan’s readers obviously responded to his style.

As you can see from my brutal rating, I didn’t.

 

 

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I recently put myself in the mildly surreal situation of simultaneously reading two very different books set in the same location and covering a similar time period. Luckily they were both so very strongly voiced that I managed to focus on each as it deserved.

The first book, a novel by Gavin Lambert, a British-born author who moved to California in the 1950s and had considerable acclaim as a screenplay writer, was much better than I had anticipated from its cover appearance. The bizarre images of Natalie Wood starring as the titular character in a movie version of the novel and the fulsome blurb shouting out “-the happiest, saddest, sexiest Hollywood novel of all!” were a bit off-putting, but the first page grabbed me and pulled me into the story and never let me go until the nebulous but satisfying conclusion.

The second book was an engaging though fairly workaday movie star autobiography, written by Rosalind Russell with the assistance of a co-author, fellow actress-turned-writer Chris Chase. Published a year after Rosalind Russell’s much too early death from breast cancer, it is a mostly flattering self-portrait with a leavening of self-criticism, which left me with a warm-all-over regard for this very matter-of-fact and very dedicated screen and stage actress, famously “in Hollywood but not of it”, as one of her friends declares in the memoir. Rosalind Russell appears from this account to have had an admirably stable personal life, at least compared to the majority of her Hollywood peers.

inside daisy clover gavin lambert 1963Inside Daisy Clover by Gavin Lambert ~ 1963. This edition: Penguin, 1966. Paperback. 265 pages.

My rating: 8/10

Thirteen-year-old Daisy Clover, father vanished from her life some years previously, is living a squalid life in a trailer park in rundown Playa del Rey, California with her mentally troubled mother The Dealer (named for her fixation on solitary card games).

Daisy finds joy in saving her nickels and dimes for occasional forays to a recording booth where she unselfconsciously belts out songs with more than a little “rare natural talent”, and she has just purchased the first of what will turn out to be a vast number of notebooks in which she will record her inner thoughts for the next two decades.

Confided to her diary, Daisy has a soberly related sexual awakening assisted along by a certain Milton, an older boy, “quite nice looking, he had muscles and butch hair and good teeth, but also a slight weight problem”, with their relationship consummated on an old, mattress-less brass bed in Milton’s father’s used furniture store, “priced at $25.00 and marked VERY NICE. Dot, dot, dot, dot.”

Daisy turns fourteen on a disastrous day which includes her mother inadvertently setting fire to their home, and it seems that despair is the theme of her young, angst-ridden life, but things are about to take a strange turn. Daisy enters one of her recorded discs (a new recording; all of the old ones having been destroyed in the fire) in a talent contest, and is “discovered” by Magnagram Studios magnate Raymond Swan.

Turns out that not only can our heroine sing like an angel, she can also act like a reincarnation of Mary Pickford (with the added benefit of being able to supplement her performance with vocals), and stardom bursts upon Daisy.

But this is not, of course, without its drawbacks.

Daisy’s patron Mr. Swan and his oddly hot-and-cold wife Melora keep Daisy on the path to ever-increasing fame, and while she finds deep satisfaction in the singing and acting aspect of her new life, being a true artist and all that jazz, the personal cost of her new life is rather brutal.

The Dealer has been whisked off to a mental home and erased from Daisy’s official biography, allowing her to be billed as “The Sensational Singing Orphan” (or something like that – couldn’t find the exact term in my flip-through just now), and Daisy is now under the care of her gosh-awful older sister Gloria, who married some years earlier and scooted out of Playa del Rey without a backward glance. Now that Daisy is a potential movie star, Gloria is very much back in the picture, and Daisy has quite a lot to say in Dear Diary about that development.

The years roll on. Daisy is a definite success as per Mr Swan’s planning and Gloria’s fervent pushing, but then the Star Train derails, when Daisy falls deeply in love with the worst possible prospect for promotional purposes she could come up with.

Once a top notch star, but now fading fast, the much older actor Wade Lewis is now a notoriously self-destructive drunk and a reportedly manipulative lover-of-many, but Daisy ignores the hissing whispers and goes with her emotions. The two find a common ground in their dislike for the lives they lead, and a genuine connection develops. The relationship strikes enough sparks to catch widespread attention, and through Daisy’s bullheaded  insistence a marriage takes place. Too bad Wade’s real sexual interests are not in women, despite his reputation in the gossip columns…

Gosh, what a grand little slice-of-American-life novel, right up there with the smutty California romances and pill-popping exposés of Jacqueline Susann, albeit much better written than anything she pumped out just a few years after Lambert’s Daisy Clover appeared.

A measure of redemption is (predictably) found after the inevitable crash-and-burn of the aging child star, and the ongoing relationship between Daisy and The Dealer adds a poignancy and appeal to what might otherwise be an utterly depressing condemnation of everything that’s wrong with the American Star Machine.

Gavin Lambert turned his novel into a screenplay, though with considerable changes to adapt it to the screen, and the movie Inside Daisy Clover was released in 1966, starring Natalie Wood as Daisy, Christopher Plummer as Mr. Swan, and Robert Redford as Wade (with the character changed, at Redford’s insistence, to vaguely bisexual versus the original completely-homosexual-passing-as-straight).

The movie was, by all accounts, a flop.

But the book most definitely isn’t, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for some of Lambert’s other Hollywood novels, apparently seven in total, as well as a collection of short stories and a number of well-regarded celebrity biographies.

Gavin Lambert was – no surprises here, after finishing Daisy Clover and considering some of its themes – homosexual himself, and his sympathetic and ultimately open portrayal of gay characters was unusual and rather brave for his era.

life is a banquet rosalind russell 1977 001Life is a Banquet by Rosalind Russell and Chris Chase ~ 1977. This edition: Ace, 1979. Paperback. ISBN: 0-441-48230-9. 260 pages.

My rating: 7/10

From mince-no-words fiction to slightly airbrushed real life, with this cheerful autobiography set mostly in the early years of Rosalind Russell’s career, but with enough concentration on the decades of the 1950s and 60s to add a supplementary picture of this most unique setting to my concurrent reading of Daisy Clover.

Rosalind Russell was unusual among her peers in that she willingly (by her account) turned her back on Hollywood for a time to return to her roots as a Broadway actress. She then went back to Hollywood, taking along her stellar role of Auntie Mame  from Patrick Dennis’ bestselling book-turned-theatrical production which was one of her outstanding stage performances, and then transitioned gracefully from first-run star to character actress in her later years.

Happily married for thirty-five years (to the same man, of course, making her rather unique in Hollywood circles – meow, meow!), Russell’s description of her relationship with her husband, Frederick Brisson, was downright heart-rending, especially in conjunction with his tribute to her in the book’s introduction.

Rosalind Russell died in 1976, aged 69, after years of struggle with both serious rheumatoid arthritis and breast cancer. Life is a Banquet was published a year after her death.

Though the autobiography is decidedly self-edited, it made me most sympathetic to its writer, not to mention deeply curious about the bits which were glossed over, though none of them appear to be at all scandalous. Rosalind merely kept a ladylike silence over other people’s private business, and obviously chose not to go into salacious detail regarding her own black moments.

Rosalind Russell was a truly beautiful woman – her photographs leave me smiling in admiration of the absolutely lovely composition of her face – those winged eyebrows over those dark, wide-set eyes! – and those sultry eyes show a glint of something else: deep intelligence and a love of laughter. Her well developed sense of humour shines through in this book.

As I mentioned earlier, Life is a Banquet is written in a slightly pedestrian style, and though it was pleasantly engaging and held my interest well, I couldn’t give it a higher rating than a “7” on my personal reading quality scale.

This memoir has left me with a warmly approving regard for its writer, and with a strong desire to watch the movie version of Auntie Mame again, and to seek out some of Rosalind Russell’s other movies, of which there is a large choice, from 1934 to 1971.

I think one might safely say Rosalind Russell was a Star well deserving of that designation in all of the best ways.

 

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kindling nevil shute 001Kindling by Nevil Shute ~ 1938. Original British title: Ruined City. This American edition: Lancer, 1967. Paperback. 319 pages.

My rating: 6.5/10

I’m starting to fall out of the routine of posting, what with springtime’s long days and the utter luxury of being able to spend long hours out in the garden. The sabbatical year is going well, aside from the anticipated pinch of much less cash flow.

(For those of you who don’t know my back story, I generally operate a small specialty plant nursery and this year have shut up shop in order to refocus and take care of some outstanding personal farm and garden jobs which can only be properly tackled in the spring. I’m starting to think two years off might be even better, as there is no way I’ll get everything on The List finished this time round…)

Well, I’ve still been reading, though at a slower rate, and mostly in bed at night, so I notice I’ve been gravitating towards slighter novels, the kind one can finish off in an evening or two. No complicated sagas in the springtime! The brain is much too full of other stuff to make sense of anything too challenging.

Which makes Nevil Shute quite a good choice, as one can’t call books such as this last read, Kindling, at all complex. If anything, it was a bit too simplified, and I found myself occasionally annoyed at how briefly the author touched on some major plot developments, and how he introduced some promising characters and then dropped them cold, never to be seen again.

It is the mid-1930s, in England, and the long agony of the worldwide financial depression is grinding away at the status quo. It has even started affecting the very wealthy business class, who are, by and large, dealing fairly well with the money market difficulties, though those lower in the hierarchy are losing their grip.

Competently keeping his feet at the top of a shifting pile of lesser men, we have the successful, middle-aged merchant banker, Henry Warren, who deftly keeps in order a whole puppet show of various enterprises, handling staid English investors and dramatic Balkan politicians with absolutely level-headed aplomb. This involves frequent long nights in London, and many trips abroad, and Henry seems never to be home at the same time his wife is, what with the two of them leading fully separate lives and only meeting infrequently when their respective circles of activity brush against each other.

Serious problems are brewing, and not only on the home front, though things there have imploded with a sullen bang. Mrs. Warren has become romantically involved with a wealthy Arab sheik, and the gossip has surpassed the whisper stage. Henry is reluctantly forced to take notice, especially when he finds himself staying at the same French hotel as his wife and her lover. A divorce is the inevitable solution, after Henry’s ultimatum of a new sort of arrangement of reduced jet-setting and poshly-cushioned rural solitude for his wife is spiritedly rejected.

Henry sets his lawyers to work getting his divorce tidied up, and goes back to his wheeling and dealing, pausing only briefly to mull over the reasons behind the failure of his marriage. The major thing being, he concludes, that his wife’s financial independence has made it too easy for her to neglect the homemaking aspect of things. When a wife is dependent upon her husband financially, Henry muses, she has much more incentive to dedicate herself to her job, which is the home and family, while the husband’s half of the deal is to provide the money and the house.

He always felt helpless in his dealings with Elise. In most marriages, he thought, the economic tie must make things easier: the wife had her job for which she drew her pay; she could not lightly give it up. Both husband and wife then had to work, he in the office and she in the home. With Elise it was different. She had her own money – plenty of it; a dissolution of their marriage would mean no material loss to her, no unavoidable discomfort. She was not dependent on her job for her security, therefore she took it lightly…

But though he seems to recover quite quickly from the shock of the failure of his marriage, Henry Warren is riding for a fall. His overworked physique is about to let him down, and when it does, it is in quite an unexpected way. Henry ends up an incoherent patient in an overcrowded hospital in a depressed small city which has lost its only industry, that of a shipyard, some five years before. He is assumed to be an indigent wanderer, and, once he has recovered from abdominal surgery, he plays along with the charade, for he has become interested in how desperate the straits are of an entire community of unemployed men, and of how the progression of their loss of hope has affected them and their families.

If only one could bring back industry to the town, he muses…

What follows is a description of how Henry Warren manages to arrange financing to reopen the shipyard, which requires some intricate and not-quite-above-board dealings with the afore-mentioned Balkan politicians, and some at-home clever negotiations to bring some British investors into the deal.

But Henry has let his emotion in this case override his common sense, and has resorted, for the very first time in his financial career, to some shady practices which won’t stand up to investigation. And he has inadvertently made an enemy, who is in possession of a damning set of documents…

Of course there is a love interest, this time a properly womanly woman, the utter opposite of the ex-Mrs. Warren, who has departed the scene to live with her “black” paramour.

One of the sticky bits in this novel, even greater than the casual sexism, was the offhand racism exhibited throughout. The Arab lover is referred quite commonly as being “black”, and “a n*gger”, and Henry notes the “swarthiness” and the “olive texture” of Prince Ali Said’s skin, which “darkens to brown” – one would assume with a hidden blush? – when Henry lightly insults him. And the Jews in Henry’s circle get much the same treatment, though here and there one is given the nod as a “good man” despite his Jewishness and the associated stereotypes of appearance and behaviour this implies.

This aspect of Shute’s writing, even given its “era expectedness”, was a hurdle I had to crawl labouriously over, but once I made up my mind to go on, I found myself quite taken up in the story of Henry Warren’s new obsession, that of the rehabilitation of a town and its population. Henry puts the philanthropic desires of his heart before the sensible qualms of his brain, and in stepping out of bounds in a completely uncharacteristic way, makes himself an unlikely hero.

I mostly bought into it, and though the author’s philosophical soapbox was evident throughout, he told an engaging enough tale that I was held until it was all told out. Not much in the way of nuances here; we are told throughout exactly how we are expected to react and think, and I found myself meekly following Shute’s direction, though I gave myself a little shake when it was all over, to get myself tuned back in to the here-and-now.

I think “vintage” is an apt summation of the experience as a whole. The details of the financial planning are rather intriguing, being based on Nevil Shute’s own involvement in establishing a pre-war aircraft factory, which was, after many set-backs, successful.

One final note, and this on the cover. The story is set in the 1930s, and there are no passionate embraces with lightly clad women within. Henry Warren’s post-marital love affair is carried out with the strictest decorum, and though he does associate with an exotic Corsican dancer during some of his Balkan scheming, that relationship is apparently quite platonic. So the cover art is mostly imaginary, and obviously designed to catch the eye of the jaded businessman, who is (I suspect) the intended audience for Shute’s masculine romances.

 

 

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