Comic novels I

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.

19 thoughts on “Comic novels I

  1. Is a comic novel the same thing as a graphic novel? If so, this sounds wonderful! I completely agree with you on the men/women front on reading. It’s sad, but considering how some covers geared to women really LOOK (and how some fantasy & sci fi covers look, too), I guess I can see why there is hesitation.

  2. Yay! “Their Finest Hour and a Half” was one of my absolute favourite reads of 2009. Not just one of my top ten, but I can say without hesitation one of my top two (Tove Jansson’s “The True Deceiver” is the other standout). And I loved the cover too. In fact, I think that’s one of the things that initially piqued my interest–that stylized image so beautifully captures the time period and the propaganda theme (at least if you’re talking about the hardback edition). But I guess it does suggest that women’s experience is central to the novel, and of course it is, but not exclusively. Ambrose Hilliard is such a marvelous comic creation that he nearly steals the whole thing. And the subplot involving Arthur Frith is one aspect of the book that has really stayed with me. So interesting, this gender divide!

  3. I makes me sad that men are less willing to read “women’s books” than women are to read “men’s books.” That’s actually one reason why some members of my now defunct book club were suspicious about bringing a man into the group. They didn’t want to have some man roll his eyes at their book choices because they were concerned with domestic matters.

    And thank you for posting about this particular book. Just yesterday I was racking my brain for the title of this one because I’d seen it around on some other blogs put couldn’t remember the title or the author. Its sounds great, and I’m making a note right now, so I won’t forget again.

  4. Well, your husband should get a few points for reading the book, even if only in the privacy of your own home! 🙂 I’m not sure what it is that puts a guy off from reading what might be a bit more of a ‘woman’s story’ than a man’s–just the cover, or are they afraid they won’t be able to relate to the contents. I’ve already ordered this (did after you mentioned it to me the other day). It sounds wonderful and I love a book that can recreate a period so seamlessly. I can’t wait to read it.

  5. I’m going to order this one right away. It sounds like just the book I need. I’ve been wondering about writing about the war without it being unremittingly bleak. And this sounds like a good example.

  6. Oh the gender divide, sigh. Funny is funny and there are so few really funny novelists around it’s a shame to see one get sidelined because of a cover – maybe we need male and female covers (although I feel a lot of women would make faces at the covers designed for them). This sounds great by the way, the domestic side of war always seems more intriguing to me than the battle side (although a good sea battle is always worth a read) but that’s probably by gender getting in the way again.

  7. You know I’ve never consciously thought about the covers of books I read, what makes me notice them or possibly reject them, although I would claim to have read quite a wide range of authors. I can’t claim that subconsciously they might not have an impact all the same. I don’t think I browse much any more – there are too many sources of information, like this blog, to tempt me before I ever get near a book.
    From a different angle this leads back to the publishers and their perception of readers and audiences. In this case I wonder if taking this to be a book without fighting, daring-do, in fact without BIG WAR, and comedy too, it was automatic to go for a cover at the other extreme. Of course this becomes books as products in relation to product placement and tells us a lot about gender perceptions and economics.

  8. “by inserting thirty or forty pages of such harrowing atrocities into his war novels that he retains his status as an alpha male”

    Oh this made me laugh! I don’t think my husband really cares so much about the covers but then the kinds of fiction he likes is more apt to have a “manly” cover on it anyway. Still, he will venture out into the world of women’s novels now and again. He read The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing when it first came out several years ago and liked it and told me to read it.

  9. I’m definitely putting this one on my must-read list. Though I agree with an above commenter, I often find covers of “women’s novels” distasteful and I am a woman! That said, I know enough by now that those covers often contain great books.

  10. This book sounds like a lot of fun! It’s really too bad that men don’t feel they can read books that are obviously marketed toward women or that take up women’s issues. It’s really a privilege to be able to read and enjoy books written by men and women. It makes me a little sad to think of people missing out on great books because of gender stereotypes.

  11. I’ve been thinking about the bombing of London since I read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. My father and some of his siblings survived that, although their flat and building in Rotherhithe didn’t. Two or three of his siblings (his mother had quite a few) were in the flat when the bombs started that day. They hid under the table and when the building came down they were killed. I’m not a big war-book fan although I do like history. I’ve always felt that somehow the bam-bam novels that focus on the violence and the heroism missed the mark. Not that there haven’t been some really good novels about what it means to be human set during war, but TGLPPPS seemed to me to capture so much more of what I heard from my aunts about that time than anything I had read before. I have always wondered if that was because I heard about it from my aunts rather than my uncles. I suspect what the war meant to the aunts was different than what the war meant to the uncles. They saw different things, had different coping mechanisms, came away with different lessons. I suspect that may have to do with how gender effects identity but whatever the reason, Their Finest Hour and a Half sounds a treat. I have just ordered it.

  12. Aarti – I had to read your comment a couple of times – isn’t it funny how language tricks us? I meant comic, as in funny, humorous, but once I saw what you meant I could quite understand how you’d read it that way! It is a wonderful novel, and I think the hardback had a less gendered cover. You do have to wonder whether publishers actively want to limit their audiences sometimes!

    Kate – I’m so glad you loved it too! It was a terrific book, so consistently well written, and the characterisation was marvellous. I felt I should so have disliked Ambrose Hilliard but I ended up finding him wholly sympathetic! I think the hardback cover was less gendered than the paperback is, which is a shame. And Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver is duly on my list!

    Teresa – I do hope you read it – I enjoyed it so much. I wish men had, on the whole, a broader interest in fiction, and a readiness to entertain all kinds of fictional universe. But there it is. Wide-reading women can feel suitably superior, I think! 🙂

    Bluestocking – it’s a shame you can’t come over. I think we’d amuse you if you could!

    Danielle -I’m so glad you’re going to read it! I thought of you, when I was reading, because it was such a funny, charming, lovely book. And once the midway point was reached, I couldn’t put it down. I will cross my fingers that you enjoy it too. I have a tendency to think that men don’t feel women’s concerns are somehow their concerns, and to be a teeny bit dismissive. I’ll happily change my mind on this if men offer an alternative explanation! 🙂

    Lilian – I so hope that you enjoy it and I’ll look forward to your thoughts whatever they may be. The novel manages wonderfully well to be both sad and funny and if you figure out how that’s done, I’d love to know!

    Jenny – I would love to know what you think of it if you do get hold of it!

    Christy – early in the year to say this, but definitely the best novel of 2010 so far. 🙂

  13. Jenny – perhaps those covers that have one image on one side, and then if you turn it upside down and the other way round, a different image. Oh no, that wouldn’t work, lol! 🙂 But it’s true that I don’t necessarily want pink embossed covers on the books I read, either. This is such a funny book – it’s intrinsically amusing due to its character studies, and I did so appreciate that.

    Bookboxed – I think of you as a man who does read widely, so I’m interested to hear you say that. I also think that hardback covers are often more gender neutral than paperbacks, on the whole. And I could not agree more about the iniquities of product placement. I’d really like to see some statistics that suggest this really works – it seems all wrong in the book world.

    Stefanie – oh my, that’s very enlightened! I’m relieved to know there are men out there who will pick up something so evidently domestic. He should have a go with the Lissa Evans – I’d happily hear his view on it! 🙂

    Miriam – I quite agree! In fact, I so often think that book covers could be better than they are in all genres. But I’m delighted to think you might read this – it is such a funny, poignant novel.

    Dorothy – there might be a whole lot fewer misunderstandings in the world if men read women’s books and women read men’s books! 🙂 And there’s also the distinct possibility of missing out on something great through prejudice or oversight. I did enjoy this – a book about the making of a film was one of those set-ups that made me wonder why so few people had done this before!

    Mary – I think you’re quite right – that one of the reasons we read is not to be alone in our experience, and so different experiences call out for different books. I have yet to read the Potato Pie book, but I have it on my shelves and am looking forward to it. The bam-bam aspect of war books tends to glorify conflict, I fear, whilst the representation of domesticity tends to show up its cost. So on those grounds alone, I’m all for more home front narratives. I will get to the Potato Pie book very soon! 🙂

  14. LL, picking up on your comment in-stream that you have to wonder about whether publishers are intentionally trying to limit a book’s appeal with these often appallingly gendered covers (why are ours so stupid?), it raises another point, which is that men who read novels largely don’t read novels written by women (and publishers know that, so why would they risk alienating women readers, their only real market for a female author, with a gender neutral or even masculine cover?), whereas women read novels by men and women and truly don’t seem to care as long as it’s a good read. It’s a disturbing pattern of disinterest or worse, wholesale dismissal, and I am duly dismayed. How do we challenge this? My husband doesn’t seem to believe me when I keep telling him he’ll love Wolf Hall. Same with Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, neither of which have remotely girly covers. But Ransom, by David Malouf? Ate it up at once.

  15. Very interesting about the gender divide when it comes to reading (and also covers). And that comment about Sebastian Faulks was very apt (reminds me of Ian McEwan as well in Atonement). I’ve made a conscious effort to read books by women but then I’m definitely not an alpha male! So did Mister Litlove enjoy it in the end?

  16. Pingback: Their Finest Hour and a Half, Lissa Evans « Jenny's Books

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