Saturday, July 27, 2019

Old Baggage, by Lissa Evans

This glorious, funny, wise and sad novel had me utterly enthralled. It's the tale of two former Suffragettes in the late 1920s, the past catching up on them as - among other things - they attend the funeral of Emmeline Pankhurst and finally get to vote. There's so much misery and injustice, and the Fascists are gaining ground, but these women are determined to fight.

It's a rare thing indeed to have a story about older women, neither of them perfect, both of them so real. They are fallible and fail, but we are with them devotedly as they struggle on. In the superb opening scene, 50-something ex-militant Mattie Simpkin has her handbag stolen, grabs a miniature of whisky and hurls it with perfect aim at the thief.
"The slope was in her favour; the missile maintained its height, kept its trajectory, and she was able to feel a split second of wondering pride in an unlost skill before a red-headed girl ran, laughing, from behind the booth, dodged round the thief and received the bottle full in the mouth." (p. 7) 
Real history is deftly threaded through this comic stuff. Mattie gives lectures on the history of the Suffragette movement, which helps (a little cheatingly) to explain the context. But some of the most striking moments are those things Mattie can't allow herself to say, such as why, years ago, she turned down her great friend Arthur Pomeroy when he proposed: 
"For she would never have wanted him to know, for her, a husband would have required not only steadfast kindliness but actual brilliance, or a rare magnetism; her brothers had spoiled her for more ordinary men. And neither did she choose to share the reason that underpinned it all - a kind of horror at the idea of standing still, of choosing a single existence, as if life were a sprint across quicksand and stasis meant a slow extinction. Long ago, as a child in a pinched and stifled century, she had seen her own mother gradually disappear." (p. 85.) 
The last section of the book is especially moving. Without spoiling the details, one woman has behaved badly and is abandoned and forlorn. Her efforts to make some kind of amends, to reach out again and say sorry, are all rebuffed or - worse - simply ignored. And then someone we've barely glimpsed in the story makes an offer of astonishing generosity that quite took my breath away. An act of kindness can change everything.

What follows is no less emotional, as a woman is left to care for two characters in turn, one of them well beyond the end of this book (as the blurb for Crooked Heart makes plain.) So much of it is conveyed so deftly, so concisely. When the boy Noel repeats something he's been told a few pages earlier - that a castle is also a rook - we recognise his intelligence, and more importantly his potential. When we're told no one came to visit him at the Barnet Hosptial for Incurables, it tells us all we need to know about his father's wretched family, and we need no further persuasion about the course of action that's been set.

Quite often, it's almost a pity when a book ends with an ad for the next book in the series. Here, it's a relief. Old Baggage is fantastic.

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