|Image from http://www.4thestate.co.uk/|
Fourth Estate, 12 January 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance copy via Netgalley.
It doesn't happen often, but sometimes you get a book and read it and think "this is just perfect". Miss Treadway and the Field of Stars in such a book.
Set in swinging London in the mid 60s, on a few snow-bound days in November, it focuses on a small group of characters brought together - metaphorically: they never all meet and one is in the USA - by the disappearance of the actress, Iolanthe Green, then playing in the West End. The Miss Treadway of the title - Anna - is Lanny's dresser. Brennan - or, as he'd prefer to be called, Brandon - Hayes is the young Irish policeman trying to find her. Orla, Brennan's wide, and their daughter Gracie, also appear as does a young West Indian, Aloysius and the owner of the Turkish café on Neal Street above which Anna lives, and his family.
Emmerson has a deceptively simple style, very cinematic, in which she'll follow one character till they someone else, then switch to them, then to a third person. Sometimes she'll take someone's thoughts back to explore their earlier life, as with Orla, trapped at home by the burden of childcare and almost a stranger to her husband, showing how things came to be.
And there is a great deal to be explained. Several of these characters have mysteries about them. It slowly becomes clear that Lanny has been inventing and reinventing her life. Who are all the people she is paying money to? What happened to her parents? But you might expect that of an actress. It's more of a surprise to learn - gradually - of the other inventions and reinventions going on here. Brennan has a adopted a more English name to fit in among the Met Police, and ways to accompany it - looking the other way when a "coloured" man is arrested for no reason, beaten, traduced or when a girl is brought in for no crime worse that being out late at night in a short skirt. Ottmar, the café owner, has morphed from being a serious journalist back home on Cyprus to a driven supplier of exotic refreshments. Orla has changed. Anna has changed. Aloysius came to London expecting to be a gentleman like those he read about in Waugh and Christie - but now sees that he and his society aren't in those books.
Everybody is busy reinventing or rediscovering themselves, consciously or not, playing with identities, in a society that seems, almost visibly, to be delivering itself of its own future - from the music playing in the "coloured" bars to the memories of wars, of internment, to the stars "said to drink" in those Soho bars and clubs.
But just as you begin to think this is all about rose tinted nostalgia for the 60s, Emmerson pulls out her cosh and whacks you on the back of the head. There are desperate women, who will be ruined or be unable to cope if they have babies. There is casual racism, not even winked at by those in authority, simply accepted. There are all kinds of people dreaming of a better world but creeping round the edges of this one, trying not to draw attention, from the gay men in the top flat to Lanny herself who's buried on the edge of several kinds of ruin.
While the thread that draws this novel together is Lanny's disappearance and the search for her, and we might think at the start it's going to be a crime story or a detective novel, it isn't. There is detective work, yes, and some danger, but really, it's an exploration both of a very distinct time and place and of some brilliant characters who comes across very much as real people, making their way, living with regrets, looking backwards or forwards and trying to puzzle out who they are and where they're going. (And who everyone else is and where they're going to - with cues of class and accent and race studied and acted on and outsiders spotted and excluded: "Nothing can ever be too English, can it? Nothing can ever be too pure.")
There is some brilliantly sharp characterisation - Anna's tendency, for example, so see men as obstacles, as something awkward, potential problems, dangerous: it's a long time till we find out why. Or Aloysius saying sadly "I want the world to be a gentler place than it is... I don't think that is a many sentiment to have." The 'white person nod'. Two lovers who first met at a funeral and fell out of love when a child came along.
It is, simply, a breathtakingly beautiful, heartbreaking and evocative book. Buy it, read it, get it for your friends, family and workmates. Do it now. Go on!