This time my post is about a traveller with two l’s. And they’re not travelling in time, they’re just lost. Metaphorically. This is because I just read Antonia White’s sequel to Frost in May, which I wrote about here, entitled The Lost Traveller, about the heroine of Frost in May’s journey into young adulthood. Confusingly her name is changed from Nanda to Clara…because White felt like it, apparently, but once you’re past that it is easy to tell that Nanda and Clara are one and the same. I haven’t read White’s autobiography yet but I gather that Nanda/Clara are supposed to be her at their age, and so I assume much of what happens to Clara in this book also happened to White, which makes me feel very sorry for her and anxious to read her autobiography, which I saw in a bookshop for a cheap price the other day, so I may just head back and pick it up.
But anyway, I digress. This is a lengthy yet marvellous book. It has taken me over a week to read it, which is a long time for me, but I have thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in Clara’s journey from being an innocent, fervent, naive and confused convent school girl to a more sexually awakened, ambitious, intelligent and questioning teenager. Her experiences as she grows from youth to burgeoning adulthood leave her wondering about religion, and love, and what her calling in life is, and why she doesn’t feel as deeply about things as she should, and also struggling with her guilty feelings towards the parents she desires to please but is secretly afraid she doesn’t really love.
This heady, passionate, confusing and often painful time that is being a teenager is perfectly described by White. The often stiflingly close friendships that are ever changing, the hatred of everything our parents hold dear, the dreams and ambitions and attachments and feelings that all come together to cause moments of joy interspersed with grief and self doubt and despair…it’s all there, and it’s so close to the bone that it took me right back to being a 17 year old again, lost and self conscious and eternally worrying over what my future would hold.
It tells of Clara leaving the convent school and going on to sixth form at a London girl’s school, where she makes close friends and dreams of becoming a ‘bluestocking’ and going to Cambridge, but then the war breaks out and she heads off to become a governess, before returning back to London and embarking on a course of events that will turn out to be a terrible mistake, which is the cliffhanger the book ends on. Clara doesn’t do an awful lot, but it’s her emotional life that is the real story here, and the inner turmoil she seems to be permanently in is so vividly described that it made me feel almost like I knew her.
Clara’s story also touches on that of her parents and their mistakes and shortcomings, showing the increasing awareness we have as teenagers and adults that our parents are not perfect and that they have desires and dreams and disappointments too. I found these strands of the story very powerful, and touching. It must have been painful for White to write about her parents, if Isabel and Claude, Clara’s parents, are, as I suspect, a depiction of her own. I felt through the way she describes Clara’s relationship with her mother and father that there was a real sense of regret in the way she had viewed and treated her parents as a teenager. I wonder whether this book helped her come to terms with that.
This is a wonderful coming of age novel, a story not just of one girl, but of every girl, I think. I highly recommend it and I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the next phase of Clara’s life, depicted in The Sugar House.