Well, it’s Mary Hocking Reading Week, hosted as usual by Heaven-Ali, and of course this year we have the excitement of the fact that Bello Books have been busy reissuing Hocking’s novels, half in February and out already and half to come in July (read more about that here). I have read a few of this novelist’s books before, namely the Fairley Trilogy (find those reviews by searching for Mary Hocking ) and in last year’s reading week, “An Irrelevant Woman“.
This year, I had the choice of the first set of republished books, and I decided to go for “A Time of War” and (hopefully) its sequel “The Hopeful Traveller” as they appealed most. I picked up the ebooks as I was doing some zipping around and wanted them handy on my Kindle, but do take a look at the print versions, too, which look gorgeous.
Mary Hocking – “A Time of War”
(03 April 2016 – ebook)
In this very accomplished and well-put-together novel, Hocking uses the handy conceit of examining the lives of a group of Wrens living in one hut on a military base towards the end of WW2 in order to explore different attitudes to the change in their lives that this period represented and different reactions to wartime and service life.
We enter the camp with cheeky Irish girl, Kerren, full of mischief and stories, and in a clever and technically adept manner, we are left with her at the end, too, more sober and having gone through the mill of war, although the perspective has shifted between the girls during the narrative. In the time in between, various experiences, all soaked through with war and what it means, will have marked the group of women – and the men they interact with – forever.
There are some challenging and even occasionally gruesome scenes (no more than you will have been accustomed to reading in wartime books), and Hocking’s customary clear sight and slight distance from her characters highlight some difficult attitudes between men and women, the British and Americans, officers and Wrens, and I’m not sure that any of the central (or even peripheral) characters are likeable as such, but no one is a type and there is a tremendous sense of place (which Hocking is very good at) and a feeling that the portrayal of life at the camp is accurate that is borne out by a quick glance at her biography.
The characters are complex, their challenges are many, and you get a good sense of the brief glimpses of fun and the daily grind and privations, shivering or boiling, trying to wash in a stark ablutions block, trying to have some semblance of a normal life and feeling totally separate from those at home. Near the end, some of the characters discuss how on earth they are going to fit back into Civvy Street (and of course we will find out how some of them fare in the sequel).
I found this to be a good companion to the Fairley Trilogy, as it shows wartime from completely the other – active service – side, which is fascinating. Hocking obviously knew both very well, and while I know that her style, very precise and well-written but never hugely lyrical and what we’ve described in a chat in the Hocking Facebook group as tending towards the “chewy” can provide a distance between subject and reader, I feel that this is a full and honest portrayal of a group of diverse and complex characters thrown into a new and pretty horrific situation which is well worth reading.
This book will suit … Mary Hocking fans, people interested in mid-century women’s lives and woman writers; students of history and social history.
A quick mention while I’m here … a new edition of Shiny New Books is out – a lovely online magazine full of reviews of fiction, non-fiction and reissues to enjoy. I have a review of D. J. Taylor’s “The Prose Factory” in it – do pop over and have a browse! Hello to any new readers of this blog who’ve found me via that, and hope you’ll enjoy reading my reviews and feel free to comment on them.
I’ve got two Margery Sharp reviews saved up for Tuesday when she’s being reissued, too, but hopefully I’ll squeeze “The Hopeful Traveller” and its review in before then … (and I did – here’s the review of “The Hopeful Traveller“). I’m currently reading more Harold Nicolson diaries, too, but it’s that awful thing when you’re on The Last Volume now!