Tag Archives: War Crimes for the Home

Blasts from the Past: War Crimes for the Home by Liz Jensen (2002)

This is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy into as many hands as I could.

It was the jacket that first attracted me to War Crimes for the Home. There’s a nice little Rosie the Riveter period feel about it that made me want to read the book, and I’m pleased to say that all these years later it remains the same. I suspect that means Bloomsbury feel it’s not worth the usual repackaging that denotes a facelift for a steady seller, or perhaps the relaunch of an author’s backlist in the hope of a little boost from a new title. A shame – it has a superb main protagonist, gutsy and bawdily funny with it, plus a twist that while it isn’t altogether unexpected works beautifully.

Liz Jensen’s novel explores memory and old age through Gloria a reluctant resident of the Sea View nursing home. Gloria loves a joke, but her memory’s not so good. Nearly eighty, her passionate nights with the dashing Ron, an American Second World War pilot, are crystal clear but there are puzzling gaps, black holes that have to be filled when her son starts asking uncomfortable questions which she isn’t sure she can answer. Her wartime love affair with an American Air Force man has left a legacy of secrets so deeply buried that it seems even Gloria is no longer privy to them.

The irascible yet determined, ‘feisty’ (how I hate that word) old woman was something of a rarity in contemporary fiction when Jensen’s novel was first published – Lesley Glaister’s protagonists, who no one would dare to call ‘old dears’, or, of course, Angela Carter’s twins in Wise Children come to mind but that’s it. Nowadays they’re more common but Gloria remains one of the most convincing fictional old women I’ve encountered.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey: leavened with some much needed humour

Cover imageThere’s been a great deal of buzz about this book, stretching as far back as the beginning of the year I seem to remember. I always think about the author when that happens. Such a whipping up of anticipation must feel like a great deal of pressure, particularly when you’re a young writer and it’s your first novel as this one is – a mixture of delight and trepidation, I imagine. All seems to be going well for Emma Healey, I’m glad to report, highly starred ratings in all the places that matter. Narrated by Maud, an 82-year-old sliding into dementia, Elizabeth is Missing has two strands – one set in the present in which Maud anxiously tries to find her dear friend Elizabeth, the other in 1946 in which her sister, married to the local spiv, has disappeared.

Maud has been forgetful for a little while. Her house is festooned with notes telling her not to cook, not to eat any more bread and not to go shopping. Carers attend to her basic needs, one seemingly convinced that the world’s going to hell in a handcart taking all old people with it first, and her daughter Helen visits every day. Maud frets about Elizabeth: visiting her house and finding it emptied; digging up her garden; reporting her missing to the police and placing an advertisement in the local paper. No one takes her seriously but she can’t stop worrying and remembering the events of 1946 when Sukey disappeared without trace, events clearer to her than what happened this morning. It was an odd time when women who contracted hasty war marriages frequently walked away from them, so frequently that the local paper ran a feature headlined ‘Women Come Home’. Frank, Sukey’s husband, had his finger in a number of dodgy pies. Some of his neighbours thought him a fine man, others were a little less forthcoming and three months in prison for coupon fraud didn’t improve Maud’s dad’s opinion. Then there’s Douglas, the young lodger whose house had been bombed and to whom Sukey has been kind arousing Frank’s jealousy. A woman driven mad by the death of her daughter looms particularly large in Maud’s memory. As dementia takes hold, events from the past blur into the present leaving Maud horribly confused yet determined to find Elizabeth.

It’s a brave move to write a first novel from the point of view of a demented narrator. Maud’s War Crimes for the Homenarrative is often heartrending – her cupboards are overflowing with cans of peach slices, a childhood treat,  she collects rubbish in the hope of finding clues and eventually fails to recognise her daughter – yet Healey neatly avoids sentimentality, injecting some much needed black humour into her writing. As Maud declines there are more gaps in the narrative, gaps which are some times a little confusing echoing her own bewilderment. Against this, the second strand stands out vividly – its resolution, when it comes, is nicely ambiguous. It’s an impressive first novel but, for me, not quite a match for Fiona McFarlane’s The Night Guest which was published earlier in the year, or Liz Jensen’s War Crimes in the Home which features the magnificent Gloria, railing against the world.

If you want to read about how Emma Healey came to write Elizabeth is Missing JacquiWine’s Journal has an excellent account of an evening with her at Waterstones Piccadilly.