With winning charm and wit, two-time Whitbread-winner Gardam (Queen of the Tambourine, 1995, etc.) explores the social and emotional climate of postwar England.
Gardam weaves together the stories of three village girls who, between the summers of 1946 and ’47, earn university scholarships and prepare to leave their former lives behind. Hetty Fallowes stages a hesitant rebellion against her mildly neurotic, maddeningly possessive mother. Una Vane flutters mothlike toward the flame of left-wing politics and the adventure of having a lower-class lover (a somewhat surly delivery boy). And Liselotte Klein, an orphaned German refugee delivered to England by the Kindertransport, tests her steely stoicism against the reflexive compassion of the Quakers who become her foster parents. Gardam moves among their experiences with sophisticated assurance, enriching the novel’s texture with memorable characterizations of the protagonists’ acquaintances and especially their elders, notably Hetty’s shell-shocked father, a traumatized war veteran who has become a philosophical gravedigger with a hilariously mordant sensibility, and her flighty, effusive mother, who’s simultaneously less and more than the smothering monster Hetty believes her to be. This is essentially familiar material (think Muriel Spark’s classic The Girls of Slender Means) redeemed by invigorating detail (especially the piecemeal portrayal of how wartime hardships were patiently endured) and an elegiac affection for the excesses and absurdities of youth on the puzzling, intimidating threshold of maturity. Gardam frames her story in dozens of crisp, brief scenes featuring deliciously dizzy conversation (“I’ve no belief in women with careers . . . It shrinks the womb”). Reading The Flight of the Maidens is a little like listening to your favorite dotty aunt rattle on about bygone days and absent friends: you shake your head in wonder and mild exasperation while the old girl effortlessly charms you.
A fine introduction to a quintessentially British novelist who isn’t nearly well enough known Over Here.