When I told Mister Litlove about a wonderful comic novel I’d just read, set in World War Two and focusing on the making of a propaganda film, he was keen to read it.
‘I don’t have any fiction on the go at the moment,’ he said. ‘Hand it over.’
And so I did. He took one look at the cover, put it down and went to watch television for another few hours or so. But being a loyal husband, and in need of a good book, he did eventually bring himself to pick it up.
‘How’s it going?’ I asked him, a little while later.
‘It’s quite good,’ he said politely.
‘I can see it’s killing you to read a book with that kind of cover on it, isn’t it?’ I said.
If it had had a scratch n’ sniff image of a pile of manure on the front, he could not have looked more revolted, when in fact all it showed was a jaunty young woman in a sage green dress. ‘Let’s put it this way: I would not be reading this on the train. It looks like it’s some kind of land girls thing,’ he replied. ‘Although it’s not a bad novel,’ he added, judiciously.
Which goes to show that, whilst women read ‘men’s’ novels, and have no difficulty with testosterone-driven covers, men rarely read ‘women’s’ novels and wouldn’t be caught dead doing so, even if the urge possessed them. What was really intriguing was my sense that this had not been a particularly girly book, and that it could be classified as gender neutral. But once again, I think there are three topics that will separate the sexes (with exceptions, I don’t doubt, but in general) and they are war, politics, and to some extent, comedy. All three are traditionally masculine domains, and unless the novels are bleak and black and absurd, the kind whose front covers sport words like ‘coruscating’, then they are classified as irredeemably lightweight. And if they focus more on family than on fighting, on love rather than slaughter, then they must be ‘women’s’ novels. The only writer to cross this line is Sebastian Faulks and he manages it by inserting thirty or forty pages of such harrowing atrocities into his war novels that he retains his status as an alpha male.
Well, I, mere woman that I am, thought Their Finest Hour and a Half by Lissa Evans to be a completely splendid novel, and a tragi-comedy of the highest order. Young Catrin Cole is writing advertising copy in London when she gets abruptly transferred to the Ministry of Information and the department responsible for propaganda films. It turns out she has a bit of a reputation for being able to reproduce women’s voices and ‘slop talk’, which the men around her are woefully unable to do. After a rocky initiation on short information films, she finds herself involved in a feature-length film. It’s 1941 and the war isn’t going well; London is suffering under the Blitz and morale could use a boost. What better way than via the cinema, refuge of thousands across the nation from the endless bombing, and a dramatization of a recent news story featuring the courageous Starling sisters, who stole their father’s boat and sailed to Dunkirk as part of the rescue mission. Only when Catrin tracks down the sisters, it turns out that, as ever, the newspaper coverage has only a passing relation to the truth. Not that that ever prevented a propaganda film from being made, far from it.
Co-starring in this novel are Ambrose Hilliard, an aging actor with a monstrous ego, and, to a lesser extent, Edith Beadmore, spinster and seamstress at Madame Tussauds. Their three narratives twist and intertwine as the novel proceeds. What I particularly enjoyed about this novel was the quality of the voices – they are all pitch perfect. Lissa Evans has an exquisite ear for dialogue and internal monologue, and you feel in very safe hands indeed as the momentum builds up, the characters develop and the entertainment level remains remarkably high. Not least because this is a book that feels very realistic about what it was like to live through the worst parts of the war, and as such contains many moments of sadness and loss. It also made me feel rather ashamed for the current whiny, self-entitled generation. In 1941 London was bombed almost every night for more than six months with terrific loss of life. Even those who survived found their houses seriously damaged, all the glazing gone, the doors refusing to shut as the foundations shifted from the blasts. Repairs were impossible as the workforce were all fighting, and compensation for being bombed out was a distant dream until after the war ended. Food was in short supply, and transportation around the city ludicrous, as bus drivers never knew how their routes would alter from one day to the next, depending on the previous night’s bombardment. Taking a train anywhere else in the country meant a long, arduous and claustrophobic journey. And yet everyone really did just get on with it, despite fear and anxiety and discomfort. Nowadays we fall apart if an inch of snow falls.
What I appreciated so much about this book was its ability to conjure up the conditions of the time with due deference to their general awfulness, and yet it also manages to be consistently funny. Definitely a book I would recommend, although its cheery yet poignant tone and its domestic perspective on war perhaps make it less of a man’s read than I had envisaged. Still, men who want something other than sabre-rattling should maybe give it a try.