21 February 2013

Requiem for a Wren by Nevil Shute

'Viola Dawson had been right about ex-Service people.  Janet Prentice, at any rate, had banked upon another war that would solve all her difficulties and bring her back into the full, useful life she once had known.  Without it she was lost, because another war had been her main hope since the end of the last one.'

By 1944 the number of Wrens enrolled in active service during World War II was at its peak at nearly 75,000 members.  I can only imagine the excitement of these young women, many leaving home for the first time, to do their bit for the war effort.  As the recruitment posters stated they were 'freeing up a man for the fleet'.  Initially their duties included everything from being a cook to loading bombs onto fighter planes but as the war prolonged from one year into the next their level of responsibility increased.  Wrens were eventually riding on warships, although not in active combat roles, and flying aircraft.  If Shute's character, Janet Prentice, is anything to go by some were also becoming a crack shot.

This novel begins with Alan Duncan arriving back at his family's estate in Australia many years after the war has ended.  The vast sunny acres are called Coombargana and in the middle of it all sits a large elegant home with only his two ageing parents and some hired help to occupy its space.  The driver, Harry, sent to bring Alan out to the estate tells him that there has been some upset at the house as the parlourmaid is lying dead in an upstairs bedroom apparently as the result of suicide.  Once settled with his parents he goes to the room and pulls back the sheet only to find the face of a woman he has spent countless hours and traveled through continents to find.  How Janet Prentice went from being a Wren to his parents' parlourmaid and living under an assumed name pains and perplexes Alan.  A search of her room reveals documents and diaries that have him sitting up all through the night and take the reader back to the early days of World War II.

We know how the story ends at the beginning of the book but I do wonder if that wasn't the case I would have been slightly more inclined to be riveted by the story.  Written with less dialogue than what remains to be my favourite novel by Shute (okay, so this is only my second venture with this author) Pied Piper I felt ever so slightly removed from the characters.  What this book does achieve really well is painting a picture of what is was like to be dutiful to your country and service and just get on with things regardless of loneliness, tragedy, or physical exhaustion.  The sheer courage and bravery of going into an exercise while facing the possibility of death never fails to astound me for lack of another word while reading war chronicles, diaries or war fiction.  I thank goodness every time that I am reading about this era from the safety of my couch and the distance of years.

As is so often the case World War II is romanticised; the love affairs, the uniforms, the dancing, the experience of travel and a sense of responsibility beyond your wildest imagination.  It was interesting to read Janet's story and realize the impact that that era had on women in service and how much they yearned for it again - even if it meant another war. 

If you enjoy World War II fiction then this is a wonderful read.  If you've never read Nevil Shute before then I would steer you towards Pied Piper first as the storytelling and writing there is stunning in my humble opinion.  And if you're interested in knowing a bit more about the Women's Royal Navy Service then click here!  

8 February 2013

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

Within ten minutes of landing on the High Street in Canterbury last October I was fishing a £1 coin out of my wallet.  A small charity shop had a tiny nook with packed shelves towards the back and the green Virago spine stood out like a beacon amongst the other paperbacks.  I had never read anything by Rose Macauley before but some names are a fairly safe bet and the synopsis too tempting to pass up.

The Second World War is over and seventeen year-old Barbary is being sent from her mother's home in France to live with her father in London.  The family dynamics of step-siblings, lovers, and second marriages was a bit confusing at first and by page forty I resorted to drawing a family tree.  Hang in there though and you will be richly rewarded, I promise you.
'Seeing his daughter Barbary standing before him, small and slight in her travelling coat and crumpled frock, her limp, hatless locks hanging around her pale, immature face, her slate-grey eyes staring darkly up at him beneath black brows, he did not see much change in her from the queer elf of seven years ago.  If he had supposed that the small slattern of ten years old would have grown into a neat, comely young creature of seventeen, who wore her clothes well and waved her hair, he now perceived his error; he saw before him the same little tramp...'
Sir Gulliver Deniston is a lawyer with traditional values married to his well-connected second wife, Pamela.  Rather than ingratiating herself into the fold, Barbary quickly seeks out the bombed out ruins of London's churchyards with her stepbrother, Raoul.  As members of the Maquis back in France during their formative years, a life of thievery, surveillance, and deception has become second nature, the ruins of London replacing the caves.  The draft dodgers and petty criminals also occupying the ruins around St. Paul's become fellow comrades seeking their share of the spoils from crime.  Barbary has inherited a talent for painting from her mother and does earn some money honestly with her painted postcards of London although she raises the price for American tourists.

When Sir Gulliver's brother-in-law, a consulting specialist in nerve ailments, takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of Barbary's past with the Resistance Party she becomes unsettled.
'Things would be told, would be guessed, that must never be told, never be guessed.  Things would be dragged up that must lie for ever in the deep, secret pools of the sea, till some tide at last washed them out into the ocean of oblivion, never to be captured more.  Until that should happen, Barbary was going back where she belonged, to the waste margins of civilisation that she knew, where other outcasts lurked, and questions were not asked.'
A tragic turn of events brings Barbary's family together and just when I thought the novel was winding its way to a conclusion two situations emerge that had me flipping pages full of suspense.  I deliberately chose this story to follow after Pied Piper by Nevil Shute with its backdrop of World War II and the German invasion of France.  The effect of war on children in these two books could not be further apart; in the case of The World My Wilderness it is heartbreaking although Barbary and Raoul's parenting, or lack of it, is every bit as much to blame.

The £1 coin spent on this book was the best value for money I have ever received and if this era appeals to you then I would highly encourage you to find a copy.  The perspective is different from any other that I have experienced.

Rose Macaulay lived through both World Wars and I am really looking forward to reading her biography if I can track one down.  Huge thanks to Danielle from A Work in Progress for this 2008 post about some short stories she had read.  I ran upstairs and pulled my copy of Wave Me Goodbye from the bookcase and now excitedly look forward to reading Macaulay's semi-biographic short story Miss Anstruther's Letters.

  'Cripplegate'  by William Menzies Coldstream