This is a book for many people who are interested in the events and atmosphere of 1936. It also deals with theatre, critics and art. It is a thriller in an historical setting, with a murder mystery thrown in. So far, so reasonable.
But I think that this novel does more. It also deals with the bleak choices for lone women who need to support themselves. It also deals with the problems faced by men in different relationships and situations. There are so many dangers in this book beyond the obvious one of a murderer on the loose; to reputations, to careers and relationships. The characters are sympathetic, maddening and vulnerable, and for the most part, realistic. Yet this is not a huge book that takes weeks to read, it is a compact novel which moves at a swift pace.
I read and enjoyed Quinn’s earlier book, Half of the Human Race, which deals variously with suffragettes, cricket and the First World War. While I thought that it was a really good read, I got frustrated by the fact that Quinn had almost included three novels in one. Curtain Call is a far more cohesive book, where the five main characters inhabit a smaller world, where they meet and interact. Thus I think it is a better book, one that can be recommended to more readers than those willing and able to take on a big read as in Quinn’s earlier book.
Nina is one of the main characters in the novel, who witnesses a crime while she is in a hotel with Stephen, a married man. The dilemma of what to do dominates the early part of the novel, while other characters emerge with less than positive motives. While the character of Jimmy is a great creation, I also felt strongly for Tom who struggles with life. There are characters who would exasperate in real life, but who are well drawn. It is difficult to enlarge on the plot, as this does novel does in part depend on suspense. It is not just a whodunnit, or even a whydunnit, but more of a discrimination of characters in situations.
This is not a self consciously literary novel, but nevertheless a very well written book. The paperback edition includes some interesting material for discussion and about the process of writing the novel, and points towards Quinn’s next book which takes one of the characters onwards. I think that the title Curtain Call works better than the alternative The Distinguished Thing as it covers the content well in spirit as well as in fact. It is more than a “poignant” read as described on the back cover; it feels more like a slice of life.
Back in my far off youth I could round up and read odd copies of Jean Plaidy’s novels on history. I worked my way through the children’s books, like the Young Elizabeth and the Young Mary (Queen of Scots). Her books also came in handy when I was doing A level history, as I read through various series relating to 1066 and all that.
Looking around bookshops, including the bargain and second hand variety, I noticed a lot of Elizabeth Chadwick novels. So yes, I acquired one or two and they became, in the words of the Stuck in a Book blog, HIU (Have It, Unread) to the extent that I was picking up duplicates – whoops! So I finally actually read The Leopard Unleashed by Elizabeth Chadwick
I can honestly say I enjoyed this book. It’s not great literature, it’s a work of fiction in many ways, and there are not tons of research to weigh it down. Which is why it is essentially an easy read. There are no big historical characters in evidence, though the warring factions of Stephen and Matilda are represented. This is a book based on a family connected with royalty. There is sex and violence, but in context. There are battle accounts, and tragedy, but it does imply truthfulness to the time. The book is based on one family, related to royalty but still fighting for survival on the Welsh Marches. There is a new wife, an abandoned mistress, subterfuge and suffering. I felt that the action kept going and for me the ending ‘worked’. I think that, like Plaidy, Chadwick does her research, but picks individuals that either are fictional or relatively obscure, so that she can be generous with the facts. Apparently she tutors historical and romantic fiction, so that is the best clue as to her skills. It’s a romance, I liked it, and will try to read her other books (of which there are many…) After all, weddings seem to be fashionable at the moment…
Those of you who remember my suffragette studies in the Working Class Movement Library will remember that I was stuck to find novels relating to the subject and period, apart from the brilliant Half the Human Race by Anthony Quinn. Today’s http://www.dovegreyreader.co.uk/ blog tackles this lack, and in the comments there are some suggestions of novels. Tracking them down as we speak, and endangering life, limb and liberty by pulling at piles of books…
Before muttering about World Book Night and associated subjects, I’m determined to write about Half of the Human Race by Anthony Quinn.
This is an exceptionally well written, fascinating, even inspiring book that I would recommend it widely. It does take as its subjects cricket, the World War One and the fight to train in medicine, and was inspired by the fight for votes for women. The most moving element of the book is the sheer humanity of both the main and other characters as they face the challenges of war, marriage, illness and pure loneliness. It is the sort of book that is difficult to read in one sitting, as the writing is so intense. There is the despair of war in the latter part of the book, when the futility of orders given by generals and the sheer loss which results is almost painfully revealed. The last part of the book is an amazing achievement in terms of conveying the horror of the battlefield and the fight to save life and limb fought by women as nurses (and less commonly, doctors). The romantic theme is not overplayed, but love in many guises is presented, both fulfilled and frustrated. This is in many ways a sad book, but it is also a book about the hope of individuals, when even a sister who has made a practical, if not a loving marriage fights back.
The title and main inspiration for the book is the fight for women’s equality. Having looked at the contemporary magazine Votes for Women in the Working Class Movement Library in Salford, Manchester (thanks, LC) I got a flavour of the tremendous risk that these women were taking in fighting for the vote and more. It was not possible to ‘have it all’; not all men would accept women who risked their liberty to protest against injustice, and marriage was not an option if all energy had to be devoted to fighting for a career that had long been male preserves. The ending is realistic and rewarding, but there is a sense of loss. I really enjoyed this book and did not want to finish it, but there were equally times when I had to put it down because it was so real. It is like a feminist version of Birdsong, but so much more. I have noticed a lot of reviews and fuss about this book, and it is all deserved. It is not just a war book, not just a book of votes for women. It is a book for anyone who is at all interested in the period and the roles of women and men. And it is just a very, very good read.