This is the beginning of a family saga, opening in London in the early 1930s; the first novel of a trilogy.
The story is told by in the third person, the perspective moves around the family and some of those who cross paths with them, but at the centre of the story is twelve year-old Alice, one of three sisters, the middle one.
She was at that interesting stage in life when she had the security of home and family but she was also beginning to see some – but by no means all – of the possibilities that life might have to offer.
“In later years, Alice heard people talk as if those who grew up during the period between the two wars had lived their youth beneath the shadow of the swastika. But it had not seemed like that at the time.
Although in her childhood older people talked of the war that was just finished, and then, some ten years later, began to talk of the war which was to come, no shadow seemed to touch her until she was sixteen.”
Her father, Stanley, is the dominates his family. He is a headmaster and a lay preacher and he has firm – and maybe idealistic – views about his family should live. He studies his newspaper carefully and he worries about what is happening to the world and what will happen to his daughters when they are grown. His wife, Judith, appreciated his and her daughters feelings and she managed things beautifully, with practical good sense and wonderful diplomatic skills.
The story of their eldest daughter, Louise, propels the plot. Her parents hoped that she would go to university but Louise wanted to be an actress. She persuaded them to let her join a drama group, she let them think it was at her girls’ school, but it wasn’t.
And Louise caught the attention of the boys in the group ….
Meanwhile, Alice is juggling friendships with two girls from very different backgrounds who do not get on. Katia is the daughter of a family of Russian-Jewish refugees, while Daphne comes from a more privileged, but probably less happy, background.
Mary Hocking as much pays attention to her secondary characters as her principals, and so the story of those girls and their families brings another aspect to the story, and illuminates the diversity of 1930s London wonderfully well.
Accounts of school life, where the narrative perspective moves towards their teachers are particularly well done. Mary Hocking worked in education until she could support herself by her writing, and it is clear that she had strong feelings and a depth of understanding.
Alice was an average student but she discovered a talent for writing; that confirmed the suspicion I had from the start, that a great deal in this story was drawn from life.
Mary Hocking paints pictures of family life, and of the world around the family, wonderfully well. Her evocation of time and place is pitch perfect, her period details are well chosen, and I didn’t doubt for a moment that she knew and understood everything that she wrote about.
She wrote well, simply and clearly, in good, old-fashioned English.
A wide-ranging cast of characters and some trips away from home – including one to Cornwall, that probably explains where Mary Hocking got her very Cornish surname – meant that there was always something to hold my attention.
But I have the same reservation that I had last time I read one of her books.
The narrative style and the writing style held me at a distance from the story and I would have liked to be a little closer. to feel that I knew -rather than knew of – the Fairley family.
I wish that she had written this book in the first person, and I am sure that she had the understanding, the grasp of her material, that she could have done it. For me, either a little more immediacy in the storytelling or a little more beauty in the prose would have really elevated this book.
That is not to say that it isn’t a very good book. It is!
Mary Hocking was a very fine chronicler of an age she lived through.
And I am eager to read the second and third books of the trilogy.