Friday, 13 May 2016
The Rose in Darkness by Christianna Brand
[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.’
‘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.
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.