Friday, 13 May 2016

The Rose in Darkness by Christianna Brand



published 1979



rose in darkness 2

[Sari’s friends are assembling at her flat for an impromptu lunch party]

And Sofy arrived. ‘Sofa darling, you’re wearing the Jade Elephant coat! You’ve never seen it yet, Nan, but isn’t it splendid? – gloriously fat-making.’

 
Rose in Darkness‘Yes, the BBC are rivvied by it, they say I need only put on two pounds now by Tuesday, instead of four…’

Faint as a wafting of thistledown, a memory flickeredin Sari’s mind and was gone again. ‘Look what they’ve brought in for lunch, Etho and Nan - ’

‘- and here is Poi
ny with even more,’ said Pony himself, coming in with a huge steaming bowl of spaghetti direct from the Italiano shop. Why he should be called Pony, nobody had any idea. Sofy’s eyes glistened. ‘Ap-solutely pounds and pounds of fat and all for free. I do thank you all!’

‘Any work going, my dovey-darling?’

‘Nothing that one could dignify by the name. But this vague hope for the future and I think the Jade Elephant distinctly improved its chances.’

 
commentary: As is so often the case, Margot is to blame. On her (highly recommended) Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog, she recently did a post on trees falling down, and how that can be a plot feature in crime novels. I suddenly remembered such a scene, and could just pull out enough details to remember it was a Christianna Brand, and by process of elimination work out from a list of her books that this must be the title. I ordered a second-hand copy (it is long out of print) and, once it arrived, settled down with some curiosity to see how it would look, more than 25 years after I originally read it.

And what a weird hotch-potch it was. Brand (a great favourite round here) was by some standards past her best, and in this book her attempts to be up-to-date and modern only partially work - there is a lot about smoking cannabis, and an attempt to show a world of sexual freedom. The story is of Sari and her group of friends, and Brand is trying to show them as free-thinking, Bohemian, amusing. Sometimes this comes off, and other times it is wince-making, and racist. But her entertaining style is in full flow and the plot is quite splendid. Sari is trapped on one side of a blown-down tree on a stormy night: a man in a car is trapped on the other side. They arrange to swap cars, so each can reach an important destination. A day later, the cars have been swapped back – but there is a dead body in one of them.

Sari’s past is revealed: she was a film actress who had a short-lived marriage with European royalty. When she left took with her a valuable ring, and she claims that a gang is after her to get it back – but is she telling the whole truth? Her friends are a mixed lot. She meets a new man during the course of the book, and he has his own secrets in his life. It is very involved and I thought clever and impressive on the whole. It does have a weird style, as if half of it is set in 1979 and the other half back in her comfort zone of the 1950s, but I liked her attempt to show a strange milieu and her incisive descriptions of her characters.

Rose in D 3Rose in D 4

There are many excellent outfits: Sari has jeans with a sequinned monkey appliqued up the leg, little chance of finding a picture of that. She wears a lot of big jumpers and tight trousers – very much a look of the time – and she and her friends make or adapt unusual costumes.

And although some would think the passage above – and other details of the friend Sofy –would nowadays be called fat-shaming, I would disagree. Sofy is shown as someone who has a selling-point as an actress – her size – and her friends accept it, praise her for it, and help her: all in a very matter-of-fact way. It’s a feature – treated as equivalent to, say, voluminous blonde hair, or unusually coloured eyes.

Although I remembered parts of the book as it went along, the denoument was a most satisfying surprise…

The main picture of a big green coat from Peachy Net Enterprise Inc, via Pinterest, the smaller one is from Etsy. Party girl photos from fashion magazine of the era.















20 comments:

  1. I like Brand but not read this one (yet) - ta!

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    1. I have never seen anyone else even mention this one - I'm hoping to rout out some other readers. She wrote some books that were much more historical/romance (Starrbelow is a particularly bad example) and I wonder if it gets filed with those - it sounds like those, with the rose and the foreign Duke, but isn't at all.

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  2. Thank you so much for the kind mention, Moira. And I'm so glad you remembered which Brand it was. What an interesting premise for a plot, too! Even if there are some aspects of it that are too, well, earnest and tried to hard to be modern, there is that solid Brand writing style, and as I say, an interesting plot premise. Glad you found some things to like about it.

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    1. I enjoyed it very much, despite a few reservations, and am grateful to you for reminding me of a lost book!

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  3. I'm imagining Sofi as quite Hattie Jacques-que - a magnificent comedy actress who, when she was allowed to be, could be really quite fabulously sexy with it (see the seduction scene in Carry on Doctor, with the flowy black lace negligee and satin ribbons!)

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    1. Oh yes, excellent Daniel! She was wonderful wasn't she?

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  4. Years ago, for some reason (because I don't usually do this), I bought a beautiful hardcover edition of this one. I had no idea that Brand had another book up her sleeve and so this was like an unexpected treasure. It has been too long since I read it to remember much except that the ending was a shocker and ineffably sad. I have a plan to re-read all of Brand someday in order, so I really enjoyed reading your reminder of pleasures past. A re-read may bring out all the problems you mention that I paid no attention to at the time, but I'm still looking forward to it.

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    1. Oh good for you - I was hoping to find someone else who had read it. And yes, I'd forgotten the ending - I just remembered being impressed by it - and so it was shocking and very well done, and, as you say, very sad. Hope you'll enjoy a re-read too.

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  5. Love your enthusiasm for the author, unsurprisingly not matched over here!

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  6. This is one of those approach avoidance conflicts. Mostly the description sounded unappealing, but the things you and Bradley say about the ending make it sound interesting

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    1. The ending is a bit of a shocker, but - like many Brand books - she had carefully prepared for it. I was surprised I didn't remember it in fact...

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  7. Oh, I must read this! What a great idea for a plot. I wish I had thought of it. I think you are so clever, the way you matched images to descriptions.

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    1. Thanks Chrissie - I do enjoy trying to dig out the right picture! And yes, this is not a perfect book, but any crime fiction fan will find much to enjoy...

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  8. I think this author must be somewhat before my times - well done, Margot, on creating a feature on trees falling down!! Your inventiveness never ceases to amaze! Nor does yours, Moira! I think the first coat is a bit much, with the green hair too, but the other one has a nice shape - sort of 50s New Look, if you ignore the hotch potch look of the materials. It could've been lovely - but isn't quite. If I see this author in a second hand shop (unlikely, they all seemed to be filled by last year's Richard & Judy offerings) I will nab it, out of curiosity.

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    1. Yes, Margot is amazing isn't she? I think we should have a Challenge Margot feature, where we try to find a topic she CAN'T find a set of crime books for...
      I think Christianna Brand is one of the under-appreciated greats, so do try one if you find one...

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  9. I gave up trying to publish my comment as crimeworm - it was a nightmare! (And my tea was getting cold!)

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    1. Sorry - the ways of blogger are beyond understanding...

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  10. Moira, when I read about never-before-read authors like Christianna Brand, I ask myself, "Should I or should I not read her books?" There are no straight answers.

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    1. Hmm - I think you would enjoy them, Prashant, but on the other hand you are not short of things to read are you...? As you say, no easy answers.

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