The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

the blank wall

What lengths will an ordinary housewife go to in order to protect her family? Elisabeth Sanxay Holding brilliantly explores just this question in The Blank Wall, a gripping thriller that had me sitting up in bed until the wee small hours. Lucia Holley is a New York housewife, transplanted to the countryside for the duration of the war. Her much loved husband is away fighting, and she shares their lakeside home with her elderly British father and two teenaged children, Bee and David. As the novel opens, Lucia is worried about Bee; she has started going to Art School in the city, and has been fraternising with an undesirable older man, Ted Darby. Bee is deaf to Lucia’s protests, dismissing her as a clueless housewife with no understanding of the real world. However, Lucia is proved right when she predicts Ted will be nothing but trouble; when he turns up at their boathouse late one night, her father goes out to see him off the premises. In the morning, Lucia goes out to the lake to find Ted dead in her motorboat; when her father gave him a shove into the water, he didn’t realise that he’d pushed him directly onto an upended anchor. Lucia is horrified, but anxious to protect her father and daughter, she realises she must take action. She sets off in the boat to hide the body on a nearby sandbank, but little does she know what consequences her involvement will have…

Sanxay Holding is brilliant at ramping up the tension, and with every chapter the threats increase. Ted Darby’s associates turn up, with material to blackmail Lucia. The local Lieutenant finds some incriminating evidence that puts him on her scent. From being a perfectly ordinary suburban housewife, Lucia suddenly becomes plunged into a world of secrets and vice, fear and danger. Her focus throughout, however, is not how to save her own neck, but those of her family. She is motivated by protecting her adored father from the knowledge of his bloodied hands, and her beloved daughter from having to admit the indiscretions she has indulged in with such an undesirable man. There is nothing she won’t do to avoid them experiencing pain; nothing she won’t do to ensure their lives remain happy, safe and comfortable.

While the major plot of the novel surrounds Lucia’s attempts to cover up Ted’s death and her subsequent actions, there is also much in here about Lucia’s life as a wife and mother. Married when barely out of school, Lucia has never had to cope on her own. Her world has consisted solely of the domestic sphere; bringing up children, organising meals, changing beds, shopping for groceries. She is assisted in this by her loyal maid Sibyl, who covers up the fact that Lucia is actually not very good at any of these tasks. Lucia sees herself as absent minded and ineffectual, and as her children grow up, they begin to dismiss her as both infantile and a disappointment. David treats his mother like a child who needs looking after; Bee considers Lucia’s life to have been nothing but a waste. However, with her husband gone, her father grown feeble, and her daughter needing her protection, Lucia is forced to dig deep within herself to find the qualities she has always believed she lacked. Rather than crumbling under the strain, she thrives. With the help of the steely Sibyl, Lucia finds the courage and resourcefulness she has never had the opportunity to use before. These two women, normally hidden from view, come into their own as events progress, and demonstrate to the family that they are not the passive creatures they have always appeared to be.

I loved The Blank Wall‘s complexity in working on so many different levels. I found it a powerfully feminist novel that gives a brilliant insight into mid century American life, as well as being a fantastic work of suspense. Lucia is a character who surprises everyone throughout the novel, including herself. Her relationship with Sibyl in particular is very interesting; they trust in and rely on one another implicitly. Lucia’s love of Sibyl and disdain of the racism she experiences reminds us of the political context of the novel, as well as underlining that Lucia is not all she seems. Bee thinks Lucia has no awareness of real life, but she has plenty; she can smell Ted Darby’s rotten odour from a mile off, and instinctively knows that she can trust his associate Marty, who turns up soon afterwards to stir up trouble. Their relationship is also intriguing; Marty’s reaction to Lucia reminds us that she is still a young and very attractive woman, desired and desiring. Bee and David are disturbed by Marty because they reveal their mother to them in a whole new light, and force them to realise that they don’t really know her at all. For Lucia has never really had the chance to find out who she is, or what she is capable of. In a way, covering up a death gives Lucia a new life. But will she be free to live it? You’ll have to read this brilliant novel to find out!

Someone at a Distance by Dorothy Whipple

Someone at a Distance was the very first Persephone book I bought. I devoured it in a couple of days, enthralled by the story that unfolded before me. I felt like I knew all of the characters; I was so involved in their lives and so concerned for their welfare that it was almost impossible to extract myself from their world. It had been too long to remember since I had read such a novel, that was written with such empathy and humanity and understanding. It was the beginning of a love affair with Whipple, whose entire works I have now read. However, I realised last month, when browsing my bookshelves for something to curl up with, that it has now been seven years since I closed the pages of Someone at a Distance. Surely it was time to rediscover its beauty, and what a joy it was to find it unchanged in its brilliance. I found myself making excuses to go to bed early just so that I could immerse myself in the world of the Norths. It is a rare talent indeed that can have this effect; with no creative writing class tricks necessary, Whipple’s simple sophistication weaves a tale that is destined to never leave those who read it. This is a special novel; one that you can return to again and again to remind yourself of the truly important things in life – and in literature.

Someone at a Distance is the story of a family whose ordinary, contented life is torn apart by the arrival of a French woman, whose bitterness at the hand life has dealt her breeds a resentment so strong that she is determined to take happiness from all those who dare to possess it. Avery and Ellen North are a middle class home counties couple, living in a large and comfortable house with a paddock for a horse and sufficient rooms to dust to require two dailies from the village. Avery is handsome and charming with a highly paid job as a publisher, but at heart he is a family man, with a special affection for his teenage daughter Anne, whose letters to him from her boarding school are his most treasured possession. Ellen’s life revolves around her home and her children. She adores gardening and loves the quiet, comfortable routines of her day; chatting with the dailies, greeting the postman, calling the fishmonger to discuss the lunch and sharing all of her news with Avery as they lie in bed of an evening. Neither Ellen nor Avery aspire to greatness; their happiness lies in one another and their children, and the all consuming business of the daily clockwork of ordinary life has swept them along with, as Jane Austen would say, very little to distress or vex them throughout the years of their married life.

That is, until Avery’s mother, lonely since the death of her husband and bitter at Ellen and Avery’s self sufficiency, advertises for a girl to keep her company. Louise Lanier, living with her shopkeeper parents in a stiflingly provincial French backwater, and recently heartbroken at being jilted by her lover for a richer and more socially acceptable partner, answers old Mrs North’s advert, seeing it as an opportunity for escape. Arriving at old Mrs North’s sumptuous house, she is impressed with her wealth, and even more impressed with her handsome son. She is disgusted with Ellen, who makes no effort to look attractive or beguiling, but yet has somehow still managed to snag such a catch as Avery, with seemingly no appreciation of how lucky she is. Louise can’t bear the happy family life she is forced to live amongst, and she soon sets her eyes on Avery as the prize she believes she deserves. With Ellen oblivious to the danger in her midst, Louise begins a campaign of seduction, and even Avery is surprised at how quickly he succumbs to Louise’s charms.

I had forgotten how much of the novel is not about Louise actually seducing Avery, or being with the Norths; much of the story is, unusually for Whipple, set in France (the only other novel of hers that is not wholly set in England is Because of the Lockwoods, which also has a section set in France). We are welcomed into the lives of Louise’s well meaning, simple hearted and loving parents, who keep the stationery shop in their small town. We see Louise’s peers; dowdy young women whose preoccupation is their husbands and homes, and we also see Paul, the only man Louise has ever really loved, who left her for a sweet and suitable woman whose happiness in marriage is a dagger to Louise’s heart. In this small town, where everyone knows one another and there is a clear social divide between the likes of the Laniers and those of the wealthier bourgeoisie, Louise is a fish out of water, looked down upon as the ‘stationer’s daughter’ and pitied for being still unmarried in her late twenties.

While Louise is undoubtedly a cold and selfish woman, she is also deeply disappointed and hurt by a life that has not delivered on its promises. With refined tastes and sensibilities, she has had few opportunities to meet likeminded people, and her frustration at being unable to have an outlet for her dreams has warped her personality, making her hard and bitter. Paul’s rejection of her thanks to her father’s lowly status is the straw that breaks the camel’s back. He is really the ‘Someone at a Distance’ and the reason for the break up of Ellen and Avery’s comfortable existence hundreds of miles away. Louise, tormented by Paul and his wife’s happiness being thrust in her face at every opportunity, wants to show them and everyone else in her hometown that she can be a success; that she is better than the shopkeeper’s daughter they all dismiss her as. She wants recognition and she wants to be the object of jealousy rather than the one looking on with envy. The more I read of Louise’s life in France, the more I grew to understand and pity her. Rather than the villain I saw her as last time, I recognised in her the fear and sadness that afflicts many twenty somethings. Fear of loneliness, of insignificance, of failure; all of these are real, painful and incredibly damaging. They can often lead people to make foolish decisions and hurt other people, and rather than hating Louise, I felt sorry for her by the end. After all, she will never have what she wants. She will never know true happiness. I don’t think there’s anything more pitiable than that.

Of course I also felt sorry for Ellen, and there is a profundity in that moment when her perfectly safe, ordinary and uneventful life collapses beneath her. Only then does she realise how happy she was, and how happy she will never be again. Whipple so perfectly captures that devastation, that ripping of the fabric of life. So many of us think our lives are dull and are constantly striving for something more, without ever stopping to realise that actually we have everything we need to be happy; health, families, friends, homes, incomes, food, books, hobbies. In my opinion, the true joy of life is in its humdrum quality; that reassurance that tomorrow will come and be probably just as comfortably uneventful as today. We might hope and dream for more excitement, but we’d never want it at the cost of losing one of the keystones that underpins our entire existence, all of which we take completely for granted until they’re threatened. In Someone at a Distance, Whipple demonstrates how quickly and easily life can become a nightmare, and how much we rely on for our happiness is fallible, transitory and breakable. Ellen might create a new life for herself and Anne, and find a new kind of happiness in independence and her work, but she will never recapture that unthinking innocence of her married life with Avery. She will never be able to take anything for granted again, and that breaking of her trust in life is probably the true tragedy of the novel.

Avery is a pathetic character, and I don’t want to talk about him. He didn’t interest me; it was Louise who mainly captured my attention this time around. Many people who have discussed Someone at a Distance have called her a femme fatale, writing her off as a malevolent presence who will do anything to destroy others for her own gain. However, now I’ve read the book twice and have had a chance to mull over it, I can’t agree. There’s a reason why Whipple takes us to France so frequently; she wants to give us a balanced view. She wants us to understand Louise’s background and what she has experienced to make her who she has become. Louise is a twentieth century Madame Bovary, a woman who has been promised more than life can offer her, and who is looking for someone to blame for her resulting unhappiness. Yes, she causes a lot of damage, but she is also incredibly damaged herself, and Whipple’s sensitivity and skill as a novelist is demonstrated in her ability to make Louise such a three dimensional character.

This is an endlessly fascinating and absorbing novel, that gave me enormous amounts to think about, and had me swinging up and down in my sympathies throughout. If you haven’t read it, you must; on balance, I think it’s definitely Whipple’s most successful novel from a literary point of view, and is probably one of the finest portraits of the damage thwarted dreams can wreak that I have ever read. This is much more than the domestic drama it at first appears, and offers the reader a rich and thought provoking slice of twentieth century life. Not to be missed.

On Timeless Novels

I recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird in preparation for teaching it to a class this half term. I last read it when I was a teenager, and remember being enchanted by the beautiful descriptions of the faded small town of Maycomb, the closeness between Jem, Scout and the wonderful Atticus and the childish games of Jem, Scout and Dill and their obsession with the mysterious figure of Boo Radley. I was fascinated and appalled in equal measure by the terrible events of the novel; the awful treatment of Tom Robinson, the casual racism of the characters and the frightening behaviour of the Ewells. This was a world that was both a children’s paradise and the stuff of nightmares; the innocence of the young is so cleverly juxtaposed with the often disturbing and upsetting realities of adult life. As Jem and Scout grow up and understand with increasing maturity the actions and decisions of the adults around them, their interests and habits change as they realise life is not a playground, and things are not always fair. The success of this novel is not just in its unflinching and – for its time – daring portrayal of the prejudice and cruelty that many adults show towards others who are different to themselves, but also in its timeless portrayal of childhood and the way innocence is slowly stripped away as we age, the realities of the adult world gradually encroaching upon the boundaries of the playground until they can no longer be ignored.

To Kill a Mockingbird is often described as ‘timeless’, despite its very specific historical and cultural setting, and reading it has also made me think of what other novels can truly be called timeless, and whether there are hidden treasures that deserve this title and have unjustly fallen out of favour. For example, I am currently reading Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance. Before Persephone republished Whipple, she had been out of print for half a century, totally forgotten and doomed to languish as a mere footnote in 20th century literary history. And yet, when you read her books, you are transported into a world that is both wonderfully antiquated and startlingly familiar. Ellen in Someone at a Distance is forever rushing around, with never enough time in the day to get things done. She is cook, cleaner, mother and wife; if she’s not driving someone somewhere, she’s at the shops; if she’s not cooking the dinner, she’s doing the washing up. Perpetually busy, perpetually the lowest priority; married, single, mother or childless, all women can relate to this role of constant frenetic activity to fit it all in.

Louise Lanier is a femme fatale, and her cold and somewhat calculating personality certainly leaves something to be desired. However, her boredom with small town life, her longing for something more, her love of beautiful things and her desire to be noticed and appreciated are aspects of character and situation that are completely universal. Reading how she feels about being trapped in her home town, living with her parents while watching her friends marry and build successful adult lives struck a loud chord with me; so many young adults go through the fear of being left behind and the frustration of feeling stifled in a life they have outgrown. And what of Avery, tempted and flattered by the attention received from a younger woman? Can we really blame him for a lack of willpower, when we all fall down in this respect from time to time? Someone at a Distance‘s sensitively and beautifully written portrayal of relationships and desires is astounding and timeless in its understanding of human nature, and yet it has not, and never will, reach the heights of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s fame. Why not? Is it, perhaps, too class conscious? Too domestic in its focus? Lacking a wider societal view? Perhaps, but these descriptions could all be applied to Jane Austen’s novels too, and hers are certainly considered to be timeless. So what is the criteria for a timeless novel, I wonder?

When I think of the timeless classic I most often turn to for entertainment and inspiration, Jane Eyre comes most vividly to mind. I love the character of Jane; plain, penniless, with no relations and no one to care for her, she makes her own way in the world out of sheer self discipline, will power and faith that something better is to come. A lack of love does not stop her from loving; a lack of compassion does not stop her from extending compassion and forgiveness to others. She does not seek revenge for the wrongs done to her, nor does she sink under the repeated difficulties of her circumstances. She stands for what is greatest in the human spirit: resilience. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre gives us a model of what it is to be human, and reminds us of the tremendous force for good that is within all of us. It might be written in a didactic style, with a fair few dodgy coincidences and a good deal of gothic melodrama, but the story transcends the conventions of its period through its ability to capture an essential truth and inspire and encourage its readers to fulfil their potential, no matter what hurdles they may face.

Perhaps this is it, then; timelessness is not just about being able to relate to the experiences of the characters, but by being moved, encouraged and inspired by their fates. A timeless novel is not one that merely explores the human condition, but that leaves us with a desire to become better people, to grow in self discipline, in courage, in kindness, and in understanding. Timeless stories are those that stay with us because they mean something vital. They inspire us to be more than we are, and remind us of all we could be. I think the novel I have read most recently that is a truly neglected timeless classic has to be Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. In its magnificent and ambitious exploration of the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of a corner of pre war Yorkshire, it reveals the essential goodness of humanity, and the need for each and every one of us to live our lives with passion, courage and hope. It moved me to tears, and the night I finished reading it was the night I finally decided to face my fears and apply for teacher training. It showed me what I could be capable of, and made me dare to believe that I too had the potential to make a difference to other people’s lives. The power of the written word is not something to be underestimated, and those words that are truly timeless are those that give us a vision of the greatness that is within our reach, if only we would rise up and grab for it.

So, perhaps there are two types of timeless novels; those that have a universality of experience, such as those of the unjustly neglected Dorothy Whipple, and Jane Austen; and those that inspire and move us in their portrayal of the potentiality of the human spirit, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre. The character of Atticus Finch has to be one of the greatest in literature; his compassion, understanding and courage are heart melting as well as inspirational. What makes him resonate so strongly with so many people is because he is an everyman; he is not wealthy, he is not overly handsome, and he doesn’t have a particularly charmed or interesting life. He lives in a rural backwater, alone with his children in a town where nothing happens. His days are uneventful, filled with the petty arguments of his uneducated neighbours and the trials and tribulations of parenting two lively children. What elevates Atticus into the extraordinary is simply his strength of character; he makes a stand against what he knows to be wrong, daring to fly in the face of the accepted social norms of his town. He is prepared to risk everything in order to do the right thing. Atticus requires nothing to do this but the resources he has inside of himself. Reading his story, we can believe that we too could be capable of doing the same thing, should we be called upon to do so; we don’t need any material trappings or heaps of brain cells to be able to emulate Atticus’ example. All we need to do is summon our courage, and raise our heads above the parapet. If Atticus, a thoroughly ordinary man, can do it, so can we. It’s the same with Jane Eyre; she has nothing that we don’t have; in fact, in many cases, she has a good deal less. Nothing but our own fear can prevent us from demonstrating her bravery, and if someone with as few opportunities and options as Jane can overcome her fears to leave everything she knows behind to strike out on her own, then we certainly can.

I’d love to hear other people’s views on timeless novels, and to know what books you turn to time and time again. My recent run of disappointing reading has made me hanker for books that are truly special, and that will leave me feeling moved and inspired. I am adoring my re-read of Someone at a Distance, and I want to follow it up with something of an equal quality, so any reading inspiration that can be offered would be much appreciated!

Patience by John Coates

Persephone’s new book for the Autumn/Winter is an absolute delight from start to finish. After a run of some disappointing books, Patience had me desperate to get home at the end of the day and read, so deliciously enticing and entertaining it is. It all starts very conventionally, and along typical Persephone lines; we are introduced to the sweet and innocent Patience Gathorne-Galley, a housewife not yet thirty who lives with her handsome older husband and her adored three little girls in a smart house in St John’s Wood. On the surface, her life is perfection itself; her husband is good to her, she has plenty of money, a lovely house, gorgeous babies and a pretty good social life for someone with so many children still in the nursery (I suppose it does help when one has live in maids!). However, this picture of domestic harmony is gradually dismantled as we realise that the Gathorne-Galley marriage is not exactly what it seems.

Patience is a wonderfully simple soul; one of life’s innocents, for whom complete happiness is found in flowers and sunshine and babies’ giggles. She asks for nothing great from life, and is content with the simple pleasures of her everyday existence. She is a devout Catholic and her faith is the bedrock of her life; she is not, however, one who sticks rigidly to doctrine and rules; while she is made very aware of what is Sin and what is Duty by her odious and legalistic brother Lionel, she cannot reconcile his view of the hell and damnation of Catholicism with her own experience of God. She especially can’t do this since her beloved younger sister Helen divorced and remarried; Helen’s happiness cannot possibly be Sinful in Patience’s eyes, no matter how much Lionel may try to convince her of it. Helen’s happiness in marriage, however, is rather alien to Patience’s experience of the institution. There is nothing wrong with Edward, by any means; he is handsome and kind and makes sure that Patience has everything she wants and needs to be happy, but there is no true passion or understanding in their relationship. Edward likes his needs to be met and Patience never refuses – she is nothing but a dutiful wife in every respect – but she gets no pleasure from sex, and doesn’t expect to; she has always been told that sex is for babies and the very idea of sex being for anything more than that has never so much as entered her head. Edward treats her like a pretty object rather than as a woman; to be there when he needs her and used as he pleases, and Patience’s innocence means that she dutifully and contentedly carries out this role, blissfully ignorant of what a marriage should truly be.

All of this changes due to two key events. First, Lionel tells Patience that he has seen Edward with another woman. Then, Patience goes to a nightclub with Helen, her husband Nicholas, and a few of their friends. During the course of the evening, Patience overdoes it on the cocktails, and feeling rather unwell, she makes a move to go home early. Helen asks a friend, Philip, to see Patience home, as they live in the same direction. Philip readily agrees, and during the course of the taxi ride, Patience falls head over heels in love. Before she knows what she is doing, she is back in Philip’s rather grand bachelor pad, throwing her clothes off and having her first experience of passionate, fulfilling sex. Overwhelmed, Patience confides in her sister. She doesn’t understand how her experience of sex could be so different with Edward and Philip; is it because the sex she had with Philip was Sin? Thankfully Helen sets Patience straight, and Patience realises that there will be no going back. With the help of her sister, she sets about extricating herself from her lifeless marriage  in order to pursue true happiness with Phillip, whose adoration of Patience doesn’t waver even when three babies turn up to sleep under his piano!

Patience is a wonderfully funny book that has almost the whimsicality of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day about it, but there is also a dark, subversive and rather radical undercurrent that is deftly handled. Edward is not really a good husband; he has frequent affairs that he only regrets when he is found out, and comes very close to raping Patience on at least one occasion. Lionel’s wife has been so browbeaten by her husband’s obsession with Sin that she has gone off to live in a convent just to get away from him. Neither Edward nor Lionel ever come to the conclusion that they are wrong in their ideas of how women should be treated, and it is up to Helen and Patience to stand up for themselves and fight for their rights to have fulfilling and passionate marriages. That a man wrote this novel in 1953 is absolutely extraordinary. A man advocating the right of a woman to experience sexual pleasure in the 1950s, the age of the submissive housewife whose fulfilment was supposed to be in having nice curtains, nice children and a husband to mix a cocktail for when he came home at six o clock, is practically revolutionary! However, Coates does feel the need to sweeten the pill a little by making Edward an adulterer; if this fact hadn’t have been revealed, I think Patience’s desire to divorce and start again would not seem quite as acceptable as it does. Patience is desperately naive, but Coates does not portray her as such to be patronising; his understanding of women is exceptionally astute, and I am sure that there were plenty of women in the 1950s who were just as innocent of the facts of life as Patience is.

Patience’s awakening is drawn with a lovely sensitivity, and when I closed the pages, I was left delighted at what a fantastic little gem of a novel this is. While it is, in many ways, quintessentially ‘Persephone’, it is also quite strikingly different, and fills a gap in the Persephone canon that I hadn’t realised was there before. It is a charming, intriguing and very clever portrait of midcentury lives and attitudes that really shouldn’t be missed. It’s certainly going to be one I come back to time and time again, and each time I read it I shall be not only reminded of how far woman have come, but also that the fight for women’s rights has not necessarily always been fought by women alone. A triumph of a novel indeed!

Farewell Leicester Square by Betty Miller

This is a rather under-read Persephone; I received it as a present and didn’t really know what it was about, and presumed it must be something to do with WWII. I was wrong, and much surprised to read the opening chapter, which describes a 1930s London film premiere in exquisite detail. The arrival of the cars, the swish of silk and furs, the rising of the curtain, the hubbub of excited voices, the popping and flashing of camera bulbs; Miller writes it all as if we could see it on a big screen before us. The film being premiered is ‘Farewell Leicester Square’, directed by Alexander Berman. The following chapter takes us back to Alexander’s (known throughout the novel as Alec) youth in Brighton, living in a rundown house with his parents and siblings and harbouring those intense and secretive dreams that characterise the emotive heights of adolescence.

The Bermans are Jewish, and this Jewish identity pervades everything they do. Alec’s father is overbearing and difficult, with ‘the characteristics of the English Victorian father…and the Lithuanian-born Jewish patriarch’; a successful businessman, he never fails to remind his children of how hard he has worked for them since coming over from Lithuania in his teens with nothing but the clothes on his back. Alec’s mother is a soft, passive presence: ‘she was very short-sighted: perhaps because the radius of her interests was utterly narrowed down to the confines of home’ – she lives for nothing but to make life comfortable for her family. Jewish traditions are upheld religiously; the big meals on Fridays, readings from the Torah, the wearing of a kippah. Alec and his brother Sydney help out in their father’s tobacco shop, and Alec’s father has no doubt that they will continue to do so once they have left school. Life is all rather stiflingly mapped out, hemmed in by traditions and expectations, with no accounting for individuality.

Alec has bigger dreams than this, however; he is in love with the movies, and longs to go and work in a studio. He buys film magazines with his pocket money and goes to the cinema whenever he can; his father ridicules this habit and makes it clear to Alec that pursuing a career in the film industry is not an option. However, Alec is gutsy and determined; he writes to every studio he can find an address for. After plenty of crushing rejections, he finally gets an invite to see Richard Nicolls, head of a London film studio. Alec goes to his home, and is intimidated by the big old English house, and by the cool, studied glare of Richard’s children, Basil and Catherine. For the first time Alec is made aware of his outsider status; he is a Jew, with no right to belong in England; Basil and Catherine possess the land they walk upon with an unthinking arrogance that demonstrates clearly to Alec how vulnerable, how alien he will always be, even in the country of his birth. Thankfully the movie industry is not bothered by race, and Richard Nicolls gives Alec his first chance. However, Alec will never forget what his encounter with Basil and Catherine has shown him about the inherent anti-semitism in British society, and this will prove to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Alec becomes a highly successful film director, making his fortune.  He marries and has a child, and lives in a beautiful London home. He has everything that most people consider to be the trappings of a successful and happy life, but Alec is never truly content. Constantly seeing prejudice wherever he goes, constantly feeling insecure and inferior, constantly afraid that he will one day be forced to leave the country he loves so dearly, he is never at ease with anyone. His wife doesn’t understand his feelings, and he is estranged from his family since he left to pursue his dream as a teenager. Apparently surrounded by love and accolades, Alec is actually very alone, and his desire to be accepted and anger that he never truly will be slowly and sadly tarnishes everything he has worked for.

Miller was 25 when she wrote this, and this is absolutely remarkable considering the degree of insight she has into the mindset of a grown man struggling with his place in the world and the effects of being an outsider in a society that is unthinkingly racist. Some of Alec’s thoughts and feelings are temptingly easy to dismiss as paranoid or oversensitive, but Miller challenges this by showing how racism is everywhere; subtle, insidious, unthinking. It is in the sneer of Alec’s brother in law on hearing of his proposed marriage to his sister, in the careless, unthinking, casually racist remarks made by Alec’s friends, in the stereotyped depictions of Jewish life, in the hurried apology of someone who says ‘but of course, you’re not like the rest of them, Alec…’.  It is the white elephant in Alec’s marriage; Alec’s wife says she doesn’t care about his Jewishness, but her almost self congratulatory praise of her own lack of racism is racist in and of itself. Alec’s race is something he is never allowed to forget, and this is something Alec’s British friends and wife can never understand or appreciate. This was hugely thought provoking for me, as someone who has never had to think about my race or my nationality or how I fit in. That in itself is really quite horrific to think about.

Farewell Leicester Square is an intriguing novel. Aside from her sensitive exploration of race, Miller’s use of language is exquisite. The structure of the book, with its disjointed scenes that fade out into ellipses at the end of chapters, flashbacks and non linear chapters is cleverly done to echo Alec’s profession as a film maker. She is superb at describing the often stifling atmosphere of home for a teenager who doesn’t feel understood or supported, and the beginning of the novel is rather Dickensian in its portrayal of Alec’s plucky determination to make something of himself. I loved the evocative description of the 1930s film industry, and the range of ‘characters’ who peopled it, and Miller is also very good at looking at the nature of family, and how complicated and fraught familial relationships can be. However, I often felt like there was too much going on, and overall the novel felt a little messy. This is essentially a novel about identity and the growth of a boy into a man; while Alec’s role as a film director and the exploration of the fledgling film industry is undoubtedly fascinating, it feels extraneous and confusing. I think that this would be a better and more impactful novel if Alec’s relationship with his family, with his wife, and with himself had been the only focus. Despite this slightly muddled nature, however, it is still a daring and thought provoking novel in many ways, and it is beautifully and perceptively written with flashes of real artistic brilliance and some wonderful observations. It’s not your typical Persephone, but it’s definitely well worth a read. I know it’s going to stay with me for quite some time.