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Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Book Review: Westwood by Stella Gibbons

I first became attracted to this book by seeing the cover on the Guardian website. The new Vintage Classics edition is striking, as book covers should be, and enticed me towards an author I hadn't heard of before.

Gibbons is one of those authors seemingly lost in the mid-20th century. She has over a dozen novels to her name, though many of them have fallen out of print until now. Westwood was a delightfully amusing book that certainly inspired me to become better acquainted with this author.

The novel tells the story of Margaret Steggles, a school teacher, who finds a ration book on Hampstead Heath and returns it to the Niland residence. Alexander Niland is a well-known artist and his father-in-law, Gerald Challis, is a famous dramatist. Margaret itches to become well-acquainted with the Challis family (and Gerald in particular), despite the fact that they treat her as a glorified child-carer. In a twist of fate, her friend Hilda attracts Gerald one night when he walks her home in the blackout. He gives his name as 'Marcus' while he idealises and courts Hilda, who has no interest in anything he has to say and simply sees him as a kind old man.

Gibbons is an expert at character sketches. There are many people who pass through the pages of the novel but they all have a distinct voice. I particularly found it remarkable that the half dozen or so children are recognisable by their differences. This applies to Alexander Niland's three children and the others encountered throughout the pages, including Linda, a girl with learning difficulties. I especially enjoyed being able to guess which child was talking when dialogue tags were sparse in a section towards the end of the book. If your characters are that distinctive then you don't need to highlight who's speaking on every other line.

As may have been gleaned, the novel is set during WWII. The war seems to be an inconvenience to the lives of the Nilands and Challises. Alexander is concerned about his paintings being destroyed and Gerald notes a significant alteration in the reception of his plays. The backdrop of the war isn't thrust forward on many occasions but that's something I appreciated: life went on in many ways and it was pleasant to read a war story that wasn't actually about the war. Gibbons describes England in very vivid terms throughout, notably when Hilda and Gerald meet in the blackout and when Margaret takes a rowdy bunch of children for a walk. However, I still think the opening description is one of the most evocative:

"London was beautiful that summer. In the poor streets the people made an open-air life for themselves under the blue sky as if they were living in a warmer climate. Old men sat on the fallen masonry and smoked their pipes and talked about the War, while the women stood patiently in the shops or round the stalls selling large fresh vegetables, carelessly talking." (p1)

The narrative swiftly moves on to Margaret's emotions on Hampstead Heath. The first few pages are all description but it doesn't drag: it helps frame the story that is to come against the backdrop of fighting abroad and struggling at home. It's a luxurious read which explores the desires of humanity and their worshipping, infidelity and difficult friendships. It's a novel about life - lightly and comically told - which ends rather ambivalently. Don't read this in search of a traditional happy ending; read it to smile and recognise different types of people who are as familiar now as they were in 1946 when Westwood was first published.

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