Tag Archives: Twentieth century historical fiction

Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves by Rachel Malik: ’We were rich…’

Cover imageRachel Malik’s debut has been sitting on my shelves waiting to be reviewed for quite some time. I was sent a copy a few months after its hardback publication when Malik approached me and I warily agreed to look at it. I’ve learned my lesson in this respect but an old friend had reviewed the novel positively in the Sunday Times which swayed me and Heavenali’s review sealed the deal. The old bookseller in me thought it would be better to hold back a review until the paperback edition appeared, and now it has.

Elsie Boston has run the family farm alone for many years. She’s a little eccentric and deeply introverted, living on the edge of the village in every sense. Struggling to keep the farm afloat, she decides to take on a Land Girl and waits nervously for her arrival, wondering how she will cope with a stranger. Rene Hargreaves is a Manchester girl who has left her gambling husband and three children, passing herself off as a widow. These two find a way to accommodate their very different habits, settling into a routine of evening Patience and listening to the radio with Rene spending her afternoon off at the pictures. By the time Elsie is forced off the farm by her opportunistic neighbours, their lives have become so entwined that they leave together, embarking on fifteen years as itinerant farm workers until they settle in Cornwall in 1958, almost two decades after they met. Life settles back into its usual routines – Elsie keeping herself to herself, Rene off to the pictures once a week – until Rene learns of the death of a close family friend to whom she owes a debt of gratitude. Despite her antipathy towards him, Rene knows she and Elsie must take in Bertha’s ageing, alcoholic husband who sets about disrupting their life. When Ernest finally dies it might almost seem a cause for celebration but then the police arrive.

In her historical note at the back of the book, Malik explains that Miss Boston and Miss Hargreaves is based very loosely on her grandmother’s life, knowledge which makes her novel all the more poignant for this is not always a happy story. Smoothly shifting perspective back and forth between Else and Rene, threading their memories through her narrative, Malik combines quietly understated prose with appropriately cinematic, vivid episodes. The passage in which Rene and her friend stumble onto a film set, charming the crew and triggering a life-long passion for the movies, is quite magical. The relationship between Elsie and Rene is delicately sketched, its changes subtly shaded in. Their lives were so very ordinary, except perhaps in one or two respects sums up these two women beautifully as it must have for many other couples like them, discreetly living their lives together. As Elsie says in court to much sniggering derision We were rich, and indeed they were. A touching, thoroughly absorbing novel – I’m looking forward to reading what Malik comes up with next.

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.

Let Us Be True by Alex Christofi: A story about love

Cover imageAlex Christofi’s Let Us Be True is one of those books I’m delighted was sent my way. I’m not sure I would have happened upon it otherwise but it turned out to be absorbing, insightful and beautifully written. Largely set in Paris during the middle of the twentieth century, it’s the story of Ralf who becomes smitten with Elsa and remains so for decades after their brief affair ends.

In 1958, Ralf spends his evenings drinking at Jacques’ bar and shooting the political breeze with his Algerian friend Fouad. He and his mother fled Germany for London in 1933 after the death of Ralf’s Jewish geneticist father. His mother still lives in London but Ralf left to study in Paris, distracted by easy ways to make money tutoring language students. One evening, rifling through an apparently abandoned handbag, trying to find details of its owner, he’s punched in the face by a woman. This seemingly unpromising meeting marks the start of Ralf and Elsa’s affair in which she apparently blows hot and cold, rarely telling him anything about herself until Ralf decides to find out who she is. What he discovers is hardly a surprise but it’s far from the entire story. When Elsa leaves Paris, Ralf stays, occasionally involving himself in the Algerians’ protests against French oppression alongside Fouad and later becoming caught up in the student protests of ’68 before moving back to London. Ralf’s is a life lived alone, continually buffeted by the events that marked both the century and the countries in which he lives, adopted or otherwise.

Christofi explores the way political events can shape ordinary lives through the framework of Ralf and Elsa’s love affair: both are Germans who survived the war which ripped apart their childhoods; Fouad fought for the French but finds himself without rights as an Algerian; Ralf’s dulling of his pain leads him into the student protest against French political stalemate in 1968. All this is done with a light touch, a vivid background to Ralf and Elsa’s stories, told from both perspectives before and after they knew each other. The striking opening sentence sets the tone for the rest of the novel which is pleasingly uncluttered, letting its characters and their histories speak for themselves. It’s an engrossing, thoughtful novel with important things to say exemplified by Ralf’s reflections on his solitary life after the death of his mother: ‘How easily one might neglect those one loved by chasing the big story, the big lie that history was a matter of ideals and not compassion’. It ends, I’m pleased to say, on a hopeful note.