I was given an e-book copy of this book via NetGalley. It has been published and is out now. I felt that it might have been marketed as a bit of a lighter, fluffier read than it actually is; having said that, I enjoyed it more for having some meat on its bones as it looked at themes of belonging and the experience of moving countries or cities which I’m interested in. Kindle books not included in this picture; turns out the Kindle isn’t very photogenic!
Miranda Emmerson – “Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars”
(NetGalley, 3 November 2016)
This was embargoed until close to the publication date, which was last Thursday. Anna Treadway is a slightly mysterious young women who is dresser for 40 year old actress Iolanthe Green, after living a somewhat rackety but really quite quiet life in London for a while. When Miss Green goes missing, Anna ends up searching for her, along with Aloysius, accountant to various musicians and club owners but a quiet and gentle man, and in parallel with policeman-with-a-troubled-home-life Barnaby Hayes (I think this is a trope of crime books, but it was nicely and delicately done).
So far, so much a standard mystery. But this novel set in the 1960s has a more serious intent, to slow the sleazy and underground side of London, a London of mixed races having maybe too much fun in sweaty clubs, where people can disappear, homosexuality and abortion are illegal but very present, and casual – and often violent – racism is a fact of life. Almost all of the characters have come from somewhere else and are often concealing their true identities: this is handled well and delicately, too, and the facts are allowed to unfurl as the characters come to them. Some of them have come to London for a new life, full of secrets, escaping from something or full of dreams, like Aloysius who expected gentlemen in bowler hats and old-fashioned courtesy and gets police brutality but a kind landlady. He’s dragged into something he’s not prepared for and, labouring with guilt over letting people down, finds the right way to go about things and is the most attractive character in the book.
It’s all cleverly plotted with a good amount of character development for a mystery novel. Anna slowly comes to realise that even her white privilege can’t stop the city’s institutions letting her and her friends down, the Turkish family downstairs start to realise that their daughter has her own London life, and Aloysius realises he’s braver than he thought.
The book is placed very firmly in its city setting and time, with enough mentions of real events and people. There were a few issues around language that I found – there’s an awful lot of swearing in some places and I wondered if an actress at that time would drop the f-word so much, but more troubling was the use of “negro” to describe black people. It did seem to come when we were seeing things through the eyes of one of the characters, and I understand that (or much worse) was used then, and it doesn’t ring so ugly maybe in quoted speech, however fictional. I assume it was a device used on purpose by author and perhaps editor and I’m not sure how else they could have done it – I’ve certainly read worse in contemporary writers writing about that period (e.g. Lynne Reid Banks’ “The L-Shaped Room”, a book I do love, but …). The violence is there but not bad enough to put me off.
The book ends with a satisfying conclusion but also a sub-plot mentioned only at the very beginning resurfacing. I can only surmise that this points to a sequel being on its way. This is a very accomplished first novel, and I would certainly read a sequel.
I’ve just finished the highly contrasting “All Passion Spent” by Vita Sackville-West and have started another NetGalley read on finding purpose and community. I have had a review copy for Shiny New Books appear through the letterbox, so that’ll be up soon, too. Have you read this one? What did you think of it?