Freya: A Novel by Anthony Quinn Jonathan Cape, £14.99
On VE Day, Freya returns to London after serving in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. She is about to go to college when she meets another aspiring author, Nancy, and their friendship forms the backbone of the novel.
We follow them to Oxford where a chance meeting with a famous critic leads Freya to a job in journalism. “It seemed like she was rising above herself, when she only felt an impatience to move on.”
It is the story of the life, loves and friendships of a talented and ambitious young woman in the changing world of 1950s and 1960s Fleet Street in which “the best stories were automatically given to men”.
It is a remarkable portrait of post-war British society, the changing role of women and the obstacles faced by women writers. At its heart is a story of friendship, of broken and mended fences, and of a woman who refuses to accept her role as defined by society.
Anthony Quinn has a touch of levity, and his deep empathy for his subject makes Freya a captivating and memorable read. H.G.
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier The Borough Press, £16.99
In Ohio’s Black Swamp of 1838, Robert is a helpless bystander as his parents’ marriage deteriorates. Her father James struggles to grow apple trees in the inhospitable soil but as far as her terrifying alcoholic mother Sadie is concerned, the trees are only good for cider and apple cider.
But what disaster caused Robert to run away at the age of nine and flee to the ends of the country? As we jump 15 years into the future, we learn that Robert led an itinerant life that included a time behind bars. He has now found steady work in California alongside William Cobb, a tree agent who collects redwood and redwood seeds for wealthy British landowners.
However, when found by a figure from the past, Robert is forced to confront the reasons he fled his home and recognize the dire consequences of his actions.
As fans of Girl With A Pearl Earring and The Last Runaway know, Chevalier is a versatile writer capable of bringing distant times and places to life, and her portrayal of 19th-century America is no exception. However, while his characters live and breathe on the page, they never quite got under my skin. Chevalier could take his research a little more lightly because I was learning more about seeds, seedlings, and trees than I ever needed to know. CH
Lover by Anna Raverat Picador, £12.99
Deep down, Kate knew all was not well with her marriage, but she came up with a series of excuses for the distance from her husband Adam. So when she finds out he had an affair, the bottom falls out of her world.
Essentially Lover is Kate wondering if the marriage can be saved and if her young daughters deal with the fallout. Yet this understated novel is so much more than the sum of its parts. Kate is relatable and friendly, confessional and often funny, and she begins to feel like an old friend.
She shares everything from her vicious attack on Adam’s Ducati to her crush on the owner of the local bookstore.
She has a high-profile job at a high-end hotel chain, and I couldn’t get enough of her work trips that took the reader behind the scenes of swanky hotels. Kate dissects what makes one hotel succeed and another fail and her conclusion applies to weddings too: it all comes down to “how they treat you”. Insightful, insightful and captivating. CH
Pilgrims of the Sun by Jenni Fagan William Heinemann, £12.99
It’s 2020 and climate change has triggered a “big freeze”. The Thames has frozen over, it’s snowing in the Middle East and an iceberg is approaching Scotland. Unfortunately, the plot of The Sunlight Pilgrims moves at an equally chilling pace. The novel centers on London bohemian Dylan who moves to Clachan Fells, a Scottish caravan park, for a fresh start. There he meets Constance, a furniture restorer, and her transgender daughter Stella.
Although he mourns his recently deceased mother and grandmother, Dylan falls in love with Constance. Stella, 12, spends her time worrying about puberty, what it means to be born a girl into a boy’s body, and being a preteen during an environmental disaster. The parallel between Stella’s impending puberty and the impending collapse of global society is clear, and these questions are more relevant than ever.
But there is curiously little action in the novel and no real sense of dread. Jenni Fagan’s sequel to her award-winning The Panopticon may be seen by some as a case of the tough second novel. H.G.
Mother’s Sunday: A Graham Swift Scribner Romance, £12.99
It is Mother’s Sunday in 1924 and tradition gives servants a rare day off to visit their mothers. However, teenage servant Jane Fairchild is an orphan, so she takes her chance to visit a nearby house, Upleigh, for an illicit tryst with Paul Sheringham. These secret meetings have been going on for years while Paul and Jane are acutely aware of the chasm of social status between them. But it’s their last meeting before Paul’s wedding.
Paul leaves at lunchtime to meet his fiancée and a heartbroken Jane is left at her parents’ house. But the day’s events are set to take an even more devastating turn. A narrator fast forwards decades to give us snapshots of Jane’s long life and it breaks the spell cast by the events of 1924.
However, Swift does a magnificent job of capturing the spirit of an era still haunted by the ghosts of World War I. Mothering Sunday is a gripping study of a bygone era and gives voice to the victims of a hidden class system. CH
How to Measure a Cow by Margaret Forster Chatto & Windus, £16.99
Is it ever possible to start from scratch, untrammeled by the past? The answer seems to be a resounding “no” judging by Tara Fraser’s experience. Freshly released from a 10-year prison sentence for an initially unspecified crime, Tara sticks a pin on a map and moves to Workington in Cumbria. Given a shy new identity as Sarah Scott, this college-educated woman takes on a factory job where her loneliness arouses suspicion and antagonizes her co-workers.
However, she is a source of fascination for elderly neighbor Nancy Armstrong and a strange and unequal friendship develops. When an invite arrives to a meeting with three old friends, Sarah/Tara decides to go make them squirm for failing her trial. But a weekend spent in her old persona awakens other demons and undermines the pared-down life she leads.
Tara has always had a shifting identity, playing at being different people, so her new role is just an extreme form of a personality that drives sociopathy. Forster’s other characters are cleverly drawn and the north/south divide well represented, but ultimately Tara remains elusive. It may be deliberate, but the novel somehow feels less than satisfying. As a longtime admirer of the recently deceased Margaret Forster, I am sad not to give this posthumously published novel a more resounding endorsement. VB