Tag Archives: British historical fiction

Happy Little Bluebirds by Louise Levene: A Hollywood romp

Cover imageI reviewed Louise Levene’s The Following Girls here just over four years ago. I loved it – a pitch-perfect satire on ‘70s schoolgirl life whose period detail rang more than a few bells for me. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of that detail in Happy Little Bluebirds, set in Hollywood just over a year before the attack on Pearl Harbour pulled the United States into World War Two, but the humour undercut with a serious edge makes her new novel equally enjoyable. Multilingual Evelyn is pulled out of Postal Censorship and sent to Hollywood to assist a British agent who needs a translator but when she gets there HP – Saucy to his friends – has bunked off to Bermuda.

Evelyn has a facility for languages. She’s fluent in nine of them including Esperanto. Married to the dour Silas, she’s now a war widow but still lives with her sister-in-law in their mother-in-law’s Woking house. When she’s presented with an assignment helping to keep an eye on the Hungarian film director keen to persuade America into the war, she’s not entirely sure what she’s supposed to do. Off she goes in her drab but serviceable British clothes, only to find that her British contact has disappeared. She catches the Super Chief from New York to Los Angeles, stopping for a makeover in Chicago and seeing spies at every turn. Once in Hollywood, she’s welcomed with open arms by some, sharp-tongued sarcasm by others. Soon she’s caught up in a round of parties, finally meeting Zandor Kiss who has an adaptation of The War of the Worlds in his sights. Kiss’ enthusiasm is welcome but needs to be curbed for the Foreign Relations Committee, keen to keep America out of the war. The once-dowdy Evelyn is settled into her new glamorous life, still somewhat puzzled as to what her job is and wary of watching eyes, when she receives news from home which to others might seem welcome but to her is not.

Happy Little Bluebirds is a thoroughly enjoyable romp through a Hollywood for whom the war is just so much background noise. Letters from her sister-in-law remind Evelyn of the sober events at home but, serious and dutiful as she is, she finds it impossible to resist the delights of California once over the culture shock, not least the matinée idols. Levine has a great deal of fun with the movie industry, mocking the extravagance of the moguls while showing solidarity with the poor put upon writers. The adaptation plans for War of the Worlds are a particular delight and the novel is stuffed full sharp one-liners:

Silas hadn’t cared for it and said so repeatedly while he cleared his plate

 He looked faintly unreal; too smart, too handsome for everyday use

 She’s filled the blasted swimming pool with gardenias again

As with all the best satire, there are serious points to be made: the constant hum of casual racism, the contrast between the largesse of Hollywood life and the austerity of wartime Britain are slipped into the narrative. Altogether a thoroughly entertaining novel and the ending is all you’d expect from Hollywood. Dentists, a constant motif throughout the novel, finally come into their own.

Sugar Money by Jane Harris: Well worth the wait

Cover imageThere seems to be something of a trend in fiction at the moment, although perhaps three novels are too few to be called that. First came Colson Whitehead’s Man Booker shortlisted The Underground Railroad followed by Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing and now Jane Harris’ Sugar Money, all exploring the history of slavery. I’ve yet to read the first two, leapfrogging over to Harris’ novel having waited eight years since the wonderful Gillespie and I. Based loosely on true events, Sugar Money tells the story of an attempt to bring a group of slaves back from Grenada to Martinique, restoring them from British to French hands.

In December 1765, the war between France and Britain recently over, Father Cléophas has hatched a plan to rescue his friary’s finances, employing a mixed-race slave to help execute his scheme. Emile was once a slave on Grenada before he was sold on leaving his brother – more than ten years his junior – with the friars who took him to Martinique. Lucien is a cocky young twelve-year-old. Emile does everything he can to prevent his younger brother from accompanying him on what he thinks of as a foolish and dangerous mission but Lucien is determined to show he’s just as smart and brave as the brother he quietly idolises but constantly mocks. These two cross the sea, finding their way to the Fort Royal hospital where they are greeted by many that remember them including Emile’s beloved Céleste. Emile has three days to persuade the hospital slaves to return to Martinique. Some are eager, perhaps foolishly so imagining a paradise of ease and freedom, others are more circumspect, many are weak and infirm. On the third night, they set off, hoping their masters will be distracted by Christmas celebrations. What ensues is a fraught and arduous journey on which Lucien will finally become the man he thinks himself to be.

Harris structures her story as a lost slave narrative, written by Lucien and discovered on the death of his abolitionist employer. Lucien is an engaging and entertaining narrator, a bumptious sardonic smart Alec in counterpoint to his quietly resourceful brother whose intelligence and integrity have won him great respect. Harris’ writing is as striking as I remember it in both The Observations and Gillespie and I. Lucien reels off a string of colourful flourishes: Father Cléophas is as ‘slippery as a worm in a hogshead of eel’; Emile is ‘a closed-up box within a box with locks; ‘say what you like about my brother but his eyes so sharp he could see two flea fornicating on a rat in the dark’. Harris uses her narrator’s voice to leaven her sober theme with a good deal of humour while laying bare the barbaric brutality of slavery fueled by greed and corruption. Ratcheting up the tension as the slaves make their way to the port, she had me racing through the final sections of her novel, hurtling towards the finishing line in the hopes that all would be well. A rattling good yarn which manages to entertain while never losing sight of its subject’s horrors.

The Wardrobe Mistress by Patrick McGrath: A well turned out chiller

Cover imageI’ve enjoyed several of Patrick McGrath’s novels, some of them with a distinctly Gothic flavour. Those of you who’ve read Asylum will know what I mean. For some reason, I’d got it into my head that The Wardrobe Mistress inhabited similar territory which turns out to be not entirely the case. Set against the background of East End fascism in 1947, still bubbling away despite the suppression of the Blackshirts, McGrath’s novel explores the anguish of grief through Joan, widow of the late lamented Charlie Grice, star of the West End.

Joan cuts a slightly dour if striking figure. Handsome rather than beautiful, she dresses meticulously for Gricey’s funeral, aware that all theatreland’s eyes will be upon her. Gricey fell to his death just after a heated exchange with his son-in-law. Joan and Gricey’s marriage was not entirely happy but Joan is quietly distraught, convinced that she hears Gricey’s voice at his funeral. When she sees his understudy stepping into Gricey’s final role as Malvolio in Twelfth Night, she’s convinced her husband lives on so faithfully does young Frank Stone replicate his performance. She decides to offer the impecunious Frank one of Gricey’s suits, altering it for him until it’s a perfect fit. An intimacy forms between these two, one which Joan needs to hide from her daughter who is preparing for the leading role in The Duchess of Malfi. One day, while deciding which of Gricey’s coats would best suit Frank, she finds a badge hidden beneath a lapel. Gricey, it seems, was a fascist, a secret he kept from his Jewish wife but one that everyone else except his daughter knew. The discovery unhinges Joan with devastating consequences.

The Wardrobe Mistress is a beautifully turned out piece of work. McGrath is a master storyteller, unfolding his tale of grief and madness against a vividly evoked background of London in 1947, frozen and struggling with the continuing depredations of post-war austerity. Replete with period detail, there are a multitude of allusions to the theatre running through the novel. I’m sure that readers better acquainted with drama will recognise many more than I did. It has all the ingredients of a tragedy complete with occasional interpolations from the Chorus, often snidely knowing in keeping with the dark thread of humour which runs through the book: ‘was there to be no end to the qualities she discovered in him now he was dead’. Altogether an impressive, thoroughly enjoyable novel, far more chilling in its depiction of a mind deranged by grief and the shadow thrown by post-war fascism than the ghost story I was expecting.