This venerable British author is best known in the U.S. for her Old Filth trilogy, completed this year. Now, here’s an opportunity to read her first novel, from 1971, about a girl on the cusp of puberty in wartime England.
Jessica Vye has a secret. When she was 9, a famous writer spoke at her school about becoming a writer. He was such an inspiration, she pursued him to the train station and thrust all her writings at him; months later, she heard back: She was a bona fide writer. Jess tells us this breathlessly. By now, she is all of 12, still impetuous. Her father has changed careers, from schoolmaster to clergyman; the family has moved to the blustery North East, and England is at war with Germany. Gas masks are mandatory; so is food rationing. Idiotic school rules get her in trouble, but Jess goes on her merry way until she encounters a madman (and potential molester) in the municipal gardens. She suppresses the memory until it surfaces later in a poem she writes; it will win a nationwide competition. In the novel’s middle, and strongest, section, Jess has a sleepover with a posh family in their huge house. In class-conscious England, the Vyes inhabit a gray area between posh and common. Jess, not previously interested in the opposite sex, swoons over a marvelously mature boy (Christian is 14, looks much older) who talks of revolution and insists on meeting her father, who, it turns out, is a famous lefty. Then, another narrow escape for Jess: Christian takes her to visit some slums, and a stray German bomb kills two kids down the street. The delayed shock causes Jess to write her poem, a move that shows Gardam’s insight into both child and budding writer. A final section is less successful as Gardam searches for a truthful ending.
The qualities for which Gardam is cherished (the quirkiness, the bright-eyed wonder at reality) are already apparent in this early work.