Kirkus Reviews QR Code


by Jane Gardam

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-60945-141-7
Publisher: Europa Editions

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.