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Thursday, 30 July 2015

Book Review: Here Be Dragons by Stella Gibbons

Since first reading Westwood in 2011 (review here) I've been slowly reading the Gibbons novels I can get my hands on, savouring them in the way that I savour Frances Brody's Kate Shackleton mysteries. Both authors have the knack of distracting me from the real world and making me smile - albeit for different reasons. So when I added Here Be Dragons to my 'Women' challenge reading list this year it was inevitable that it would be one I'd make sure I read.

The novel tells the story of Nell Sely, a young woman who moves to Hampstead from Dorset following her father's lost of faith and resignation from his parish. Nell and her parents end up living in a house owned by her father's sister Lady Fairfax, a television personality, and she becomes entwined with her bohemian cousin John and his crowd. Nell's also aware she needs to start earning money to support her family and initially starts work as a secretary. However, she soon decides she'd rather be a waitress and finds she's rather good at it.

Here Be Dragons works, like other Gibbons novels, as a study of London life during the 1950s. Hampstead springs to life once more with vivid detail, particularly with the suggestions of urban change peppered throughout. One of the most interesting characters in that respect is the aristocratic Miss Lister who lives in a cottage at the bottom of Nell's garden and has an unexpected role to play in the plot.

The infatuation Nell has for John isn't something that I completely understand, due to him being a horrible character, but the act of infatuation is something infinitely relatable and it permeates the novel in various guises. Gibbons's representation of another troubled relationship in the form of Benedict and Gardis is interesting, demonstrating further the breaking down of barriers in the post-war world. However, for me the most intuitive aspects of the book came in the descriptions of the loss of Martin Sely's faith, which he cautiously comes to terms with during the novel and fashions a faith of his own. The exploration of his thoughts is one of the things that has lingered with me, along with the depictions of Hampstead and the depiction of some very unsettling relationships.

Here Be Dragons meanders a bit at times, with some characters feeling superfluous but generally making a point, and won't be to everyone's tastes but I thoroughly enjoyed it. My delight in reading a Gibbons novel apparently hasn't diminished.

This book was read as part of the 'Women' reading challenge, details here.

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