She Came to Stay by Eleni Kyriacou
Soho, London in 1952. Dina is a young woman from Cyprus, keen to discover life in her adopted home. An unexciting job in a grimy cafe, a shared damp flat with an over protective brother and a London frequently beset by fog could be a sad existence, but quietly getting a job at the Pelican, a nightclub, excites her. Sewing costumes from vivid and beautiful materials is a treat in a drab postwar London. This is a novel of the details and descriptions that reawakens a sense of a battle scarred city, where opportunities for a new life seem just out of reach, and dampness and dark dominate.
Dina has travelled from her homeland for a new beginning, and is eager to grasp for everything that London has to offer, but has also confined her with her Peter, a brother who is determined that she should live as a good Cypriot girl, and make a good marriage. This is a brother who drinks, smokes and gambles compulsively, spending any money that they earn, unless it is extra and hidden. A powerful story of the squalid rooms and flats inhabited by immigrants in post war London, it speaks of the fear of those new to the country of authorities and absolute poverty in a country where dreams had led them. The characters are intensely drawn, physical beings who come alive on the page, realised by an author alert to the slightest gesture and expression. The advent of Bebba, bleach blonde and determined to move on from a life on Cyprus, rocks Dina’s world, and this intense novel goes on to describe that change. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this compelling book written in the voice of a young woman and a narrator who seeks out the motives for life changing action.
The excitement of achieving a job in a somewhat tatty nightclub may not seem significant, but Dina sees it as a way of escaping “the damp and the rats and cramped bedsit”. She is skilled at sewing, and the glimpses of the young female performers are realistic, but speak of a different life. She encounters Bebba, who has little respect for any rules, and who seems determined to experience Soho life in every sense. As she becomes a friend, she takes the inexperienced Dina to the clubs and the bars of Soho, showing her new ways to live. She visits the room which Dina shares with Peter, and begins to weave her way into their lives, helping with the rent, distracting both of them with her fashionable clothes. Dina becomes a little suspicious of her friend, jealous of her increasing influence over Peter, but has a secret romance of her own. When Bebba’s secrets erupt into their lives, the tension between the three of them takes a dangerous new turn.
This is a memorable book, with powerful emotions brilliantly described in the two narrative strands, the third person narrator describing some of Bebba’s actions and feelings, the other the voice of a frequently incredulous young woman trying to cope with unforeseen pressures while desperate to experience life in London. I found it very well written, brilliantly paced and full of atmosphere which goes beyond the blinding, choking fog which descends onto London, cloaking life in so many ways. This is a strong novel of immense research, much of which is listed at the back of the book, but which never interrupts the flow of the narrative. I recommend it as a brilliant read, a female led novel with much to say about a young woman’s life and challenges in a London full of post war opportunities.