The Girls of Slender Means

London, early 1945. The Second World War is coming to an end, but the girls who live at the May of Teck Club in Kensington may not even notice. The hostel is for young women of limited funds who have come to take advantage of a city deprived of thousands of men busy fighting on the continent to slip into jobs that were never available to them before.

Jane, Selina, Joanna and their friends are in the prime of their lives, and aren’t about to let air raids get in the way of ‘entertaining’ male friends on the roof. It’s business as usual for them too. It’s all a little too much for a group of spinsters who have lived at the May of Teck Club for decades, who came to London with the same dreams a generation before, and who now never want to leave the sisterhood. But nothing lasts forever. This is Britain on the cusp of the welfare state and the atomic bomb, and the war isn’t over just yet.

There’s no way of putting it less bluntly: I suspect I would have got more out of this novel if I had been a female reader, especially in the 1960s when it was first published. As it is, I can appreciate it in context. Numerous other British novels of the 1960s are set in the 1940s, as if tracing the contemporary social shift (particularly regarding equality for women) back to what happened during the war.

Apart from that it’s a largely uneventful novel, and at this length, its characters are sketched rather than drawn. But it was a quick and easy read, made especially readable by Muriel Spark’s sardonic sense of humour and waspish jibes at British society.

Anthem for Jackson Dawes

This cheery YA novel begins with Megan Bright checking into hospital for her first course of cancer treatment. Even worse than the malignant tumour growing inside her head, however, is the fact that she’s been relegated to the children’s ward, full of crying babies and other assorted brats. The only other teenager around is Jackson Dawes, and Megan finds him intensely annoying from the get-go.

Of course her distaste for him is a quite obvious case of the lady doth protesting too much. Before long she and Jackson are getting away with murder, because none of the hospital staff really have the cojones to tell a couple of kids staring their own mortality in the face that it would be better if they just had a bit of a lie down.

Rarely leaving the confines of the ward, the novel follows Megan and Jackson through their repeated returns to the hospital for more treatment. With a plot like this, and a title like that, it should be obvious that things are going to get pretty grim before the almost obligatory life-affirming ending.

Celia Bryce has written a pretty powerful novel that really comes into its own in the final act. Her light touch ensures the story never gets depressing, even though she juggles big themes of love and loss. She captures brilliantly the isolation and alienation that helps Megan and Jackson bond – they are sharing an experience that nobody else they know can really understand.

If I were allowed two complaints, the first would be that Megan’s illness gives her a precocious sense of perspective and self-awareness, but this is somewhat swept over by a relatively swift ending. But if I were allowed only one complaint, it would be my usual one – I wanted it to be longer.

Wild Abandon

Seventeen-year-old Kate and her eleven-year-old brother Albert live an unconventional life. Their parents dropped out of mainstream society decades ago and started a commune on the Welsh coast. Everyone Kate and Albert have ever known have been other unconventional types who come to the commune, however transiently.

But Kate knows there’s another world out there, and she desperately wants to be part of it. If she wants to get into university she needs to get qualifications her parents lack the knowledge to prepare her for, so she heads out into the other world to get them. Meanwhile Albert, feeling abandoned, begins to believe one of the other commune member’s theories about the end of the world.

Submarine was a cult hit (as was its film adaptation), but I related to this one much more, invariably because I also spent some time in childhood obsessing over the end of the world (thanks to the film version of When the Wind Blows). Though ultimately the story belongs to the kids of the commune, this is an ensemble piece, with quite a large number of developed characters for a short novel. They are deftly handled, the hippie stereotypes smartly subverted (as is the wealthy Guardian-reader stereotype, for that matter).

Even more so than Submarine, there’s an overarching melancholia hanging over the entire novel, even when it manages to be bittersweetly funny. Albert’s feared apocalypse might never come to fruition in a literal sense, but when Kate returns to the commune, and brings a bit of the modern world with her, it becomes clear even to her that the dream her parents once had could never last forever.