What will life be like after COVID-19? We might never know, but we might take our clues from these four books that depict life in post-war England. Here, characters navigate new experiences in a society that must change, despite its limitations.
Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers
In Small Pleasures, there is a virgin birth that must be investigated, but this is merely the backdrop to the larger story. Jean Swinney, who works in a fictional local paper out of the London suburbs toils both in her professional life at the paper and her personal life.
In the former, she is the designated “woman writer” relegated to “women’s issues”: housekeeping advice, wedding announcements, what to do when your garden stops growing, and the like. In the latter, she is an unmarried daughter caring for her mother, and with no time for herself.
he paper assigns her to write about the virgin birth (she is seen as the safe choice to do so, as the “woman writer”), and it is here where Jean’s life starts to change.
She makes the acquaintance of Gretchen Tilbury, who is sure she was blessed with Immaculate Conception; she meets the daughter born out of that so-called miracle and the husband who took on the role of father. Her relationship with this family is what brings her the biggest of her life’s small pleasures: what was once merely treasured moments to herself like a cup of tea, a quick smoke, or a tub of rose-scented hand lotion hoarded and unopened is now a life with broadened horizons, and unsettlingly, falling in love in the most inappropriate of ways.
For a piece of historical fiction, Small Pleasures feels like it was written in the period it inhabits. Everything is here: charming, busybody neighbors, a wool skirt that needs quick mending lest it is sent off to the donations pile, the quietly accepted sexism in the workplace. It very much feels like a microcosm of a society struggling to find and renew the self after years of privation and wartime sacrifice. The book was Clare Chambers’ first after ten years and was a sleeper hit, a surprise success that took England by storm.
Bass Rock by Evie Wyld
Bass Rock takes place mostly in North Berwick, a Scottish seaside town facing the titular Bass Rock, a landmark that has taken on mythological status in Scotland. In the novel, it stands guard over three generations of a family undone by violent actions and terrible secrets.
Sarah, a woman who is seen as a witch, runs away with a father and his young son. A century later, Ruth, grieving the death of her brother after the war, moves to North Berwick in a cold, drafty home known as the big house, with her husband and his two young children. A generation later, Viviene splits her time between London and that house, cleaning it up in time for the sale after the death of her father.
Central to the story is the suffocating effect of male-on-female violence, from within the family and the ghosts in the house. It begs the question: who is haunting whom?
The Feast by Margaret Kennedy
The Feast is the only book on this list that was written at the time it was published. Taking place over one week, the book starts after the main climactic event: a landslide has occurred on the coast of North Cornwall, taking with it a hotel (or, as derisively called by its staff, a “boarding house”). Seven guests have perished.
The story then flashes back to the start of the week, with a bird’s eye view toward the guests and staff, most of who range from eccentric to straight-up awful. The guests are a mix of selfish aristocrats to hard-done-by penny-pinching strivers, the staff themselves slothful and unhappy.
As the narrative churns, it becomes apparent something is not right, and the reader is left pondering: was this an act of God, or man?
Margaret Kennedy envisaged her characters as personifications of the seven deadly sins, and each archetype runs riot all over the pages (in as much as a sloth can run). Taking place in 1947, the action takes place in the post-war era of austerity and shortages, with the characters taking stock of their place in the world and wondering if it was all worth it. Whatever the answer is, reading this book is very much so.
Freya by Anthony Quinn
It’s May 8, 1945, and 22-year-old Freya Wyley meets Nancy Holdway amid wild celebrations: the war is over and soon life is on its way to normalcy. As we all know, however, things never work out the way we expect and Freya must navigate the changing times in a country mourning its war dead and simultaneously reshaping its future.
As she grows, Freya’s relationship with Nancy is one of pushing and pulling. Freya is the wilder, more ambitious of the two, willing to put up with chauvinist attitudes in the world of newspapers, while Nancy is quieter and less confident of her place in the world. They make friends with the charismatic Robert Cosway, and each of them will face some monumental decisions ahead.
From Oxford to the Nuremberg trials, to the swinging 60s of London, Freya fights her way in pursuit of independence and the search of love, against expectations and the tide of traditionalism that threatens to overwhelm.
Cover photo from movie-locations.com