When I added this book to my list of suggestions for a new Book Group, I didn’t really think it would leap out and be the first choice for December’s meeting. Still, despite the fact that it has aged (well, I think) this is a novel to savour, not least for its wartime setting, which is an interest of mine, but also the quality of its writing.
For those of you not previously acquainted with the writing of Mary Wesley, this is a novel written when she was in her seventies (which should give hope to us all!) in which she uses her own experience of what life as a young woman in the early 1940s was actually like. This she cleverly cuts in with the talk and memories of the characters much later, as they gather for the funeral of the most famous and infamous member of the older generation of those who gathered for dinner on a camomile lawn in August 1939. The lives of the male characters are equally vivid, as they perhaps seek comfort, an important theme for Oliver, courage and understanding of a world where nothing is certain, even life itself.
The novel begins in a peacetime where war is threatened, but is difficult to believe in for many of the characters. There are painful memories among the older people, who know that war can mean loss of not only life but a future. There is disbelief that the Nazis are really that bad, even though two people have escaped from their long reach and suffer agonies of worry for a son left behind; there is still the persistent hope that another cataclysmic war can be avoided. This is not a war book in the sense of battles, or even descriptions of bombing. The war is a background which explains the coming and going of characters, the relaxation of inhibitions, the intensity of real emotions. There are no purple passages of “she felt”, “he realised” “she knew”. This is a prime example of the show rather than tell emotions; although Helena’s singular behaviour rather confuses others, the effect of her choices is so well observed that we do not need to wade through pages of self – analysis to see that when everything is changing and challenging, surviving is about more than dutiful self sacrifice.
I had forgotten that this is a book which is not afraid to describe unorthodox relationships which can happen when survival is not guaranteed; a passing happiness or comfort becomes understandable if not commendable for many of the characters, even though surprises and confusion can reign. In short, this book is more racy than I remembered! This should not put you off, as the character who publicly claims “not to know what love is” is the one who discovers much in the course of the novel. The 1991 tv version of the novel is a fitting translation of the narrative which looking back features some amazing performances, but the characters are all there, drawn to near perfection in the book itself. Apparently Wesley’s books run in a sequence, so I will be seeking out my copies of her other novels soon!