I have a number of Rose Macaulay books on the shelf but this is the first time I've managed to finish one (prodded by a reading group) and it's left me with mixed feelings. Once I'd started it (which I did slightly in the manner of a woman approaching a necessary but not entirely unpleasant chore) I had no trouble getting through it but I did have trouble in believing in it. There was a nagging feeling that Macaulay was working out something quite personal on the page, her characters felt like caricatures: Helen the amoral mother who is so beautiful (in the classical mould) that nobody can resist her charm - Helen the face that launches a thousand ships and cause turmoil wherever she goes. She could as well have been called Aphrodite. There is also Sir Gulliver her upright and uptight English ex husband, and Pamela his very fair play and jolly hockey stick new wife. Overshadowing it all is the ghost of Helens dead second husband Maurice, a Frenchman with Dionysian qualities.
Their children include Ritchie, the son of Helen and Gulliver, who having made it through the war is intent on giving himself over to aesthetic indulgence, Raoul the son of Maurice and his un-regretted first wife, Barbary - the heroine of the novel and whose name immediately sets her up as a piratical mysterious creature most properly belonging to the jungle or other margins of civilised life - is also the product of Helen and Gulliver's marriage.
The novel takes place in the immediate aftermath of the war, starting in Collioure in the south of France (famous for painters and wine) Maurice is meant to have collaborated with the Nazi's in a mild sort of way and despite using the fruits of his activities to help both his neighbours and escaping allied airmen the Maquis drown him (confusingly it seems that Maquis refers to the individual resistance fighter, the resistance movement as a whole, and also the country they retreat to hide in). Maurice's collaboration is the first weak point - it's described as such a half hearted affair, Helen escapes a similar fate because they helped those airmen, and Raoul and Barbary are involved with the Maquis. Maurice should have been a much more ambiguous figure, except as a plot device his death doesn't make sense.
I questioned too Barbary and Raoul's involvement with the resistance - it may be that the movement was full of 14 year old girls taking pot shots at Nazi's but Barbary seems so childish that again except as a way of signposting her position on the margins of society it feels unlikely. Maurice's death at the hands of the Maquis forces Helen to send the children away to London where they quickly find another marginal landscape to inhabit - the ruins around St Paul's which have already been more than half reclaimed by nature.
At this point the scene is set, the actors on their marks, and all that remains is for the action to play itself out to a conclusion of some sort. If it hadn't been for Macaulay's fine eye for detail and satire I would have struggled with this book but her descriptions of bombed out London are moving, and her descriptions of Pamela especially very funny. The examination of what war and family does to it's survivors is not, I think, entirely successful - it's to heavy handed.
Worth mentioning as a post script though is that Macaulay's description of professional shoplifting strategy is masterly, the technique she describes hasn't changed in 60 years.