An apt title for a sometimes provoking book. Tanya Izzard wrote an interesting post about 'Christmas At Cold Comfort Farm' and a story in it she found particularly problematic 'Cake' - I somehow missed it out on my first read but can now see why she had an issue with it. I don't find it as troubling as Tanya did though it's undoubtedly the weak link in the collection. However I do agree that when reading Gibbons there is often something that jars in her work.
'Here Be Dragons' spends most of it's time being absolutely brilliant but there are moments when it totally falls down. At it's best this is the story of Nell, daughter of an ex vicar - he's undergone a crisis of faith and illness which has left him unable to provide for his family, because of this Nell and her parents have moved to London where a successful aunt has lent them a house in Hampstead. The top floor of the house is occupied by an ex husband, his new wife, and Nell's cousin John.
John is destined for National Service but meanwhile is wondering round bohemian London's clubs, espresso bars, and darker corners in search of material for his novel. Nell falls for the charms of her cousin and allows him to lead her into this world - sometimes she enjoys it but mostly she sees through the artifice of rich kids playing at poverty. Nell has different ideas of how her life should be, she's experiencing real poverty and has no taste for it. A first job in an office bores her whilst offering no real prospects and then she discovers waitressing. It offers her better money and allows her to plan for a future where she'll have her own cafe.
I like this - it was refreshing to read about a girl who wasn't going to be a writer or similar, Nell will clearly succeed (I like to think far beyond the imagination of 1956 when this was written). Her mix of inexperience, determination, and character are all convincing - the attraction to her comparatively exotic cousin makes sense as doe her flirtation with his friends and lifestyle, but so does her own inherent conservatism.
Cousin John is less convincing, Gibbons doesn't resist throwing out dark hints about his probable future, she also gifts him with genius and a sort of omnipotent ability to meddle in others affairs - neither of which always hit the right note. On the other hand she hits off exactly how smugly irritating 19 year old boys can be (a few days with my brother were testimony to her skills of observation*).
Nell's parents are another strong point. Her father's loss of faith is described in moving, and again convincing terms. How that story resolves itself feels just as truthful. It occurs to me that this is a difficult thing to get right, but Gibbons definitely pulls it off. Her love of London and of Hampstead also come through, the portrait she draws of them is nostalgic now, and surprisingly beautiful from a woman I associate with a love of the countryside.
The real bit of grit in the oyster for me though is when she talks about the increasing number of coloured faces in her cityscape. Descriptions come across as slightly uncomfortable and poorly integrated both onto the plot and the portrait she draws of the city. It's something that shouldn't have been noticeable and because it is, it irritates me.
All of those niggles aside I loved this book whilst I was reading it and still do. Gibbons is a good writer with a lot to offer - she certainly deserves to be back in print and I really hope that this particular title graduates from print on demand to easily available. It's quite possible that Nell will become one of my all time favourite fictional heroines - never would I have thought 300 pages about a girl who wanted a tea shop could have been so compelling.
*I love my brother and understand there's no point in trying to argue with him even when he comes out with real crap. I look forward to spending time with him in the future when life has destroyed many of his adolescent hopes and dreams. Alternatively he can buy me drinks so I can drown my sorrows whilst sincerely congratulating him on his luck.