Tag Archives: 1960s

North Facing by Tony Peake: A South African atonement

The theme of adults manipulating children isn’t an unusual one in fiction – Atonement and The Go-Between are obvious examples – but the setting of Tony Peake’s new novel stood out for me. In it a man in his sixties has returned to South Africa where he was at boarding school, remembering the events which came to a climax as the world held its breath in the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis when he was twelve years old.

Paul is working his way towards the small town of Mokimolle. It’s the first time he’s been back to South Africa since he was a schoolboy, teased mercilessly by Afrikaans boys for his English parentage. Paul was a sensitive child, desperate to fit in and determined to join Andre du Toit’s club with its despotic rules. Unexpectedly invited into the inner sanctum, he was tasked with stealing anything that appeared unusual from a teacher’s study. Quickly promoted after his delivery of a comb, Paul found himself asked to write a report on Spier, the teacher determined to make his pupils question their world rather than soaking up received opinion. Paul diligently noted what seemed to be a friendship between Spier and Pheko, the school’s groundsman, horrified to see his report in the hands of Andre’s father the following Sunday. Played out against a backdrop of a febrile, post-Sharpeville South Africa, North Facing explores themes of awakening, culpability and atonement.

Peake vividly summons up 1960s’ white South Africa in the grips of fervent anti-communism, determined to go to any lengths to combat threats to its power. The present-day sections of his novel are narrated in the first person, distancing Paul from his younger self whose third-person narrative he occasionally interrupts. It’s an effective device, drawing you into the 1962 story line while signalling its far-reaching consequences. The depiction of colonial South Africa is neatly done: Paul’s determinedly English mother has brought her country with her complete with chintz-bedecked bungalow and Sunday roasts; the mutual fondness between the children and their parents’ servants contrasts with the racism absorbed by unquestioning young minds. Peake lightly sketches Paul’s sexual awakening –  a sudden, puzzling but fateful response – and his realisation of what he has been instrumental in bringing about is quietly delivered. It’s an engrossing, poignant coming-of-age novel whose revelation of the purpose of Paul’s journey brought me to tears.

Monte Carlo by Peter Terrin (transl. David Doherty): Sliding into obsession and madness

Cover image‘Check ignition and may God’s love be with you’ is the achingly familiar quote which prefaces Peter Terrin’s novella. It might be tempting to think that Monte Carlo was written after David Bowie’s death last year but it was originally published in Holland in 2014. Sometimes it’s a struggle to work out quite why an author has chosen a particular epigraph for their novel but in this case it couldn’t be more appropriate. Ending on the night of the first moon landing in 1969, Terrin’s novel tells the tale of a God-fearing mechanic who becomes obsessed with the actress whose life he saves.

Jack Preston is the chief mechanic of Sutton’s Formula One team. It’s the job he’s worked towards since he was thirteen, losing himself in tinkering with a local farmer’s Massey Ferguson two years after the death of his father. Jack and his team are readying themselves for the start of the 1968 Grand Prix but the crowd only has eyes for DeeDee, the young, delicately beautiful movie actress who has captured everyone’s hearts including that of the Prince whose wife was once a starlet. As DeeDee walks towards him, Jack catches the scent of fuel on the air, leaping towards her just in time to save her from a conflagration. DeeDee’s bodyguard drags them both away from the flames – DeeDee unscathed but Jack badly burnt. As Jack lies in hospital, a journalist comes to interview him, his answers haltingly translated by his nurse with her sketchy grasp of English. Jack arrives home a hero, not least to his wife, but as the year passes with no word from DeeDee, no acknowledgment of his sacrifice, Jack’s obsession with her deepens until, as the villagers’ admiration leaks away, he slides into madness.

From its vividly dramatic opening, this beautiful dreamlike novella had me in its grip. The first section is a cinematic intersplicing of images from the racetrack before the focus is switched to Jack and the aftermath of his dramatic rescue. Terrin’s writing is strikingly arresting: ‘Sunlight streams in through the vast windows of the reception area, reflected by the distant azure of the sea with a brilliance that verges on the audible’; ’A roar of laughter from the fat man punches a hole in the dignified serenity of the grandstand’. Jack’s increasingly delusional obsession is chillingly convincing, offset by the odd flash of humour. There’s a contemporary resonance in the portrayal of celebrity although DeeDee put me in mind of Princess Diana, several decades after the events portrayed in the novel. From the fragmentary structure which suits the novel beautifully to its oblique ending, this is a meticulously crafted piece of fiction. Terrin’s written four novels besides this one but it appears that only The Guard has been translated. Let’s hope MacLehose Press have plans to publish the other three.

A Summer with Kim Novak by Håkan Nesser (transl. Saskia Vogel): A Swedish period piece

Cover imageI have to admit to picking this up because it’s Swedish. I read it during what seemed to be a period of deep virtual immersion in Scandiland – watching the first series of The Legacy re-watching Borgen and reading Martin Booth’s excellent The Almost Nearly Perfect People squarely aimed at people like me who have a tendency to think of Scandinavia as a Nordic Nirvana. Håkan Nesser is well-known as a crime writer and I’m not a crime reader however A Summer with Kim Novak is billed as ‘combining coming-of-age and crime’. To my mind, it’s very much more the former than the latter: there is a crime but it’s not the point of the book.

Erik, our narrator, was fourteen years old during 1962 or the summer of The Terrible Thing as he refers to the event that’s frequently foreshadowed in the first part of the novel. His mother is dying and his father decides that Erik should go to the family summer house with his older brother, Henry, and a colleague’s son, Edmund, also coping with a sick mother. A sophisticated sharp dresser – at least to a fourteen-year-old – with an eye for beautiful women, Henry has given up his journalist job to write a book. Once established in Genesaret, it becomes clear that Henry’s fiancée will not be joining them as planned, and soon Ewa Kaludis comes visiting. Erik’s summer term had been brightened by the arrival of Ewa – the spitting image, as you’ve probably guessed, of glamorous film star Kim Novak, and the fiancée of the local handball hero – who rides her smart red Puch around town, charming all, not least her eager pupils. Over the summer Erik and Edmund become close, bonding over their ailing mothers and their burgeoning lust for Ewa. All changes after the night of The Terrible Thing: the two boys will not see each other for many years when it becomes clear that each has taken a very different path.

Given Nesser’s celebrated reputation as a crime writer it’s entirely possible that readers primed for a police procedural might be disappointed in this novel but for me it worked well. Nesser captures the awkwardness of adolescence beautifully. Erik and Edmund’s troubled backgrounds cement an entirely believable bond between them, each taking solace in the other. Despite all that’s happening at home they manage to have what both are agreed is a ‘brilliant summer’: living a life free of adult restraint, rowing on the lake, fantasising about Ewa, forging a friendship which in the normal turn of events would last for life. Nesser is particularly good on the strangulated emotions which surround Erik’s mother – he and his father communicate in clichés, both terrified of what’s happening. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the dénouement, cleverly unfolded though it was, but I’ll leave you to decide about that – for me the path to it in the final section of the book seemed a little improbable. Coming-of-age rather than crime novel, then, and if that’s how you judge it a thoroughly successful one.

The Other Side of the World: An Unexpected Treat

The Other Side of the WorldThis was the first book I read for review after coming back from my hols. I was looking for something uncomplicated, nothing very taxing, and Stephanie Bishop’s novel with its gold-type adorned jacket looked like it might fit the bill but it took me by surprise. The Other Side of the World turns out to be a smart, elegantly understated piece of writing which looks at the complexities of parenthood and marriage, belonging and dislocation. The press release compares it to Rachel’ Cusk’s A Life’s Work but Bishop’s novel is altogether more subtle than that.

We know from the prologue that things have gone awry as Charlotte waits nervously in her small Cambridge bedsit, hearing the noises of her husband’s arrival but not the sounds of her children. From here, Bishop turns back the clock three years to 1963 when Charlotte, Henry and Lucie are crammed together in a tiny cottage in the dank, October English countryside. Charlotte has just learned she’s pregnant again but has yet to tell Henry. Lucie is only seven months old and Charlotte dreads the demands of another child. Once an artist, she has time for nothing but Lucie, struggling to keep on top of housework, cooking and childcare while Henry works as a lecturer. Charlotte takes solace in countryside walks, alive to the natural world whatever the weather, while Henry longs for the warmth of his Indian childhood, never quite accustomed to the English climate despite being sent to school in Britain to avoid the tumult of Independence. Henry is Anglo-Indian, fitting into neither country comfortably. When a leaflet arrives extolling the virtues of emigration to Australia, Henry sees an opportunity but Charlotte is reluctant: he may be rootless but she is not. Finally, she agrees to go if he can find a job. By 1965 they’re heading to Perth, now a family of four. Charlotte struggles with this alien, harsh landscape whose climate is either scorching or cold, while Henry finds that Australian academia is not quite as tolerant of his mixed race as he’d assumed. A crisis is clearly in the offing.

The theme of motherhood is not an easy one to tackle with honesty – the aforementioned  Cusk came in for a great deal of stick when she did it – but Bishop succeeds in exploring its contradictions with a powerful subtlety. Charlotte has longed for a child but finds the reality hard. Henry is a good father, spending more time with his children than many men did in the 1960s, but it is Charlotte who bears the brunt of the hard slog of childcare. When regretting her agreement to go to Australia she remembers that ‘She was, quite literally, not herself then, but a woman dispersed among her children.’ The narrative shifts smoothly between Charlotte and Henry, equally subtle in exploring Henry’s growing awareness of his rootlessness and others’ perception of his racial identity. Bishop’s descriptions of both the English and Australian landscapes are vivid, often used to convey the ache of Charlotte’s longing for home. It’s a quietly perceptive novel – a meditation on parenthood, marriage and belonging all wrapped up in gorgeously understated prose. The final chapter is a triumph, neatly sidestepping clichéd sentimentalism. Bishop’s first novel seems to be unavailable in the UK . My hope is that Tinder Press, who have a sharp eye for this kind of fiction, will publish it in paperback.

Ridley Road: Fascism and anti-fascism in the ‘60s East End

Ridley RoadCarnaby Street, mini-skirts, coffee bars and rock n’ roll: these are some of the things that make up the glossy vibrant Swinging Sixties we see portrayed on our TV screens in nostalgic documentaries. Flip that coin over and you’ll find something nasty – racism and fascism alive and kicking almost twenty years after the Second World War. In what I like to think of as our more enlightened times it’s easy to forget that casual anti-Semitism was rife in British society but there it was in all its ugliness. Jo Bloom’s Ridley Road explores this theme through an area of history I knew nothing about – the 62 Group, which grew out of the Jewish East End, set up to combat Colin Jordan’s National Socialist Movement.

During the summer of 1962 twenty-year-old Vivien decides to leave Manchester heading south in search of the man she knows as Jack Fox, a writer who spent time closeted with her political activist father just before he died. She’s lonely and bereft, wanting to change her life and convinced that what she and Jack shared might lead to love. She soon finds a job with a Soho hairdresser and becomes a favourite with its colourful clientele. Her search for Jack proves fruitless but she finds herself drawn into an anti-fascist group, attending a National Social Movement rally in the hope of finding him there. What she sees shocks her – swastikas, anti-Semitic banners, racism of every persuasion, and violence. Then she spots Jack but can hardly believe her eyes: he appears to be a fascist. What follows is an exploration of a fascinating slice of British history all wrapped up in a thriller and a love story.

Bloom handles the tensions within her story well but what lifts her book above the crowd is its context. Her novel grew out of a lift given to an elderly man she’d met at a funeral she’d attended. Listening to her father and Monty talking about their memories of the 62 Group, she became fascinated by what they were saying, researching it for several years before writing Ridley Road. It’s a tribute to Bloom’s lightness of touch that her story is so absorbing – sometimes research can sit rather clunkily in a novel. Her portrayal of life as an infiltrator is particularly convincing. It’s a chilling read at times but lest we become too complacent, comfortably reminding ourselves that Ridley Road is historical fiction, let’s remember the mood music currently played by all our political parties and that one of them has recently gained two seats in Parliament based on an anti-immigration platform. Sounds like a warning bell to me.