Thursday, October 27, 2011

Lyrical coming of age story in post-war England (Books - The Flight of the Maidens by Jane Gardam)

Jane Gardam's post-World War II coming of age story, The Flight of the Maidens, features three very different young women who share the honor of prestigious university scholarships as they graduate from a small Yorkshire high school. The time is 1946. Hetty tries to extricate herself from what we would nowadays call a co-dependent relationship with her mother, alternating between childish reliance and virulent rebellion. Una dates a "bad boy" as she is raised by a single mother who keeps a beauty salon. Liselotte is a German Jewish refugee, taken in by Quakers when she arrives via the Kindertransport.

Gardam's book has two strengths. Her observation of character is razor- sharp,
edged with an irony that stops shy of adolescent meanness only because, although it comes from the pen of a third-person narrator, that meanness is suited to the point-of-view of her character.
The vast vicar flung himself about in his chair, helped himself to more fruit salad and poured condensed milk (thirty-five coupons) round and round his pudding bowl from the flowery tin. 'Your mother has given up a very great deal for you, Hetty.'
Mrs Vane was proud of her drier, which was one of the latest power-filled domes. Her mother, who had been a hairdresser too, though trained, had had to sit her clients in front of a coal fire with a towel over the shoulders and a cup of tea while they held their heads to the flames. Mrs Vane's mother's clients had looked like the victims of shipwreck. Mrs Vane's were like apprehensive pupae.
That and they are dead funny. And she captures essential moments, like this one, with a photographic 'snap.'
It was an amazement, an impossibility, this freedom. Nobody in the world knew where she was. Nowhere in the throng, anywhere in North Kensington, was there a living soul who had seen her before, or would ever see her again. She had sixteen-and- elevenpence in the world, and no bed to sleep on. She walked on and on.
That amounts to as lyrical a summation of the book as one can get. Its second strength is strong bones. The book begins with the three young women together in their town as they leave school. It follows each of their narrative threads, alternating them more and more closely until they come back together with a cinematic surge as the plot-lines converge, a structure that was both touching and satisfying. Where the book could let one down was in the plotting. I'm not sure I buy the rosiness of the story's resolution, which I won't detail so as not to spoil it. Gardam's story does include losses for the young women, but she obviously sees the flight of these maidens as a sort of deliverance, one I remained a little skeptical of as the book drew to a close. The Flight of the Maidens is an entertaining read with richly detailed characters and a good sense of time, yet the total effect fell a bit short of the mark.


Unknown said...

I don't know why Ms. Gardam isn't better known. I've not read this one, but I'm been very impressed by what I have read. I'll look for this one.

Barbara said...

Jane Gardam wrote one of my all-time favorites: Old Filth. Have you read it? If you have not, do try it. It is remarkable.

Ted said...

Hi Barbara
I have heard enthusiasm about Old Filth from a number of sharp readers like yourself, I'll have to check it out.

CB - Which of her's is a favourite of yours?