This is a most unusual book, even for Persephone who have managed to bring out a wide variety of novels and other books which reflect life in the Twentieth century. This is an extended satire in the form of a short novel, in which certain characters are depicted as living in a nearly familiar setting of a post war Britain most unlike they expected. Its bitterly insightful message, that rigid divisions in society are more than unfair, shows a world in which some people seem to get everything, while the vast majority serve or suffer. It is not a political manifesto as such, but a dystopian vision in which some things seem familiar yet frequently painful. It has disturbing echoes of a society in which nothing had changed after the cataclysmic events of the Second World War, yet in this version of life, so much was different. Its skilful writing avoids melodrama, yet manages to convey so much about the daily lives of so many people.
As the novel opens, set in 1948, five people, including a young man called James, are rescued from an otherwise deserted island. Echoing Persephone’s “Miss Ranskill Comes Home” by Barbara Euphan Todd, the castaways discover a different Britain from the one that they had left a few years previously. James is pessimistic about his return, as despite a comfortable background and a public school education, he had not found his role in life or indeed a means of supporting himself. He discovers to his astonishment that it is his very background which gives him automatic status as a class A citizen, able to live a largely idle life supported by non executive directorships and the fact that the vast majority of citizens are ranked below him. Indeed there is one class of people, C, who are totally dedicated to serving As. He soon finds the lifestyle of privilege and virtually unlimited credit much to his liking, as he discovers other As who are soon suited with women who are either available to marry or ideal mistresses. Women generally within his class are no longer expected or allowed to study at University or work for money; their expectations should be for neatly arranged marriage. Other women must work within the constraints of their own classes or aspire to a relationship outside marriage; James is soon ‘provided’ with a maid for his immediate needs. His family are delighted to welcome him back, but sad that they must live a circumscribed life, not allowed to mix with those in a different class on any level. James sees some of the other castaways, some of which have not been so comfortably settled. It is the political changes which have been introduced that convince him that no change will be possible. Those with a vote preserve the status quo, those without cannot change a system which remorselessly enforces the chasm between the haves and have nots.
This is both a book of its time, but also a book which arguably speaks to society today. We know what happened to Britain after the Second World War; the austerity, rationing and shortages which affected everyone. Here the solution is to toughen the divides so one class has as much as it wants, while the rest of society has to make do. The system of democracy has reverted to control by the already powerful and rich, with Trade Unions and intellectuals being ruthlessly suppressed. This is a skillfully written book, full of wry observations on a society with not totally unfamiliar elements. It is a story, a work of imagination, yet engaging in its black humour and recognisable characters. It is a strange satire, yet a readable novel for times beyond the 1940s. I was very grateful to receive a review copy of this book, which I found an really good, unusual read.
This book is one of the three new Persephone books just released. I have actually got another review of an older book to post, so watch this space for more Persephone books!