This is the story of four Londoners – three women and a young man with a past, drawn with absolute truth and intimacy. Kay, who drove an ambulance during the war and lived life at full throttle, now dresses in mannish clothes and wanders the streets with a restless hunger, searching … Helen, clever, sweet, much-loved, harbours a painful secret …Viv, glamour girl, is stubbornly, even foolishly loyal, to her soldier lover … Duncan, an apparent innocent, has had his own demons to fight during the war. Their lives, and their secrets connect in sometimes startling ways. War leads to strange alliances …
Reading her describe her research process in today’s Guardian was enough to inspire me to pre-order this one in hardback.
I grew conscious, too, of the specific sights my characters would have encountered, the peculiar clutter of a city at war – not just the things with which I was already familiar, the absent railings, the bomb-shelters and piled sandbags, but details like baffle-walls, emergency water tanks, blue light bulbs. I could easily picture London’s ruins; I had not thought about the “Piranesian” scaffolding – as Anthony Powell puts it – which accompanied the endless rebuilding work. I knew about queues, but not about the long lines of “frantic animal lovers” desperate for meat for their cats and dogs, which JR Ackerley calls “one of the sights of London” at some points in the war. I had not thought about how childless London must have looked after the first wave of evacuation – as if the Pied Piper had woven his way through it, leaving grieving parents in his wake. Perhaps the period had its gothic elements, after all. The war certainly made London an eerie place, a city of unfathomable darkness and, at times, unnatural hush. Many diarists comment on the way the landscape became a shifting, provisional, disorientating one. People emerged from shelters to find familiar landmarks gone, roads blocked, objects displaced, and surfaces – pavements, trees, flowers, walls, everything – made ghostly with plaster and dust.
She’s speaking at the South Bank Centre at the end of next month, but of course it is sold out. Blast.