This book grabbed me early and never let go. When a writer whisks you so convincingly to another time and place its such an incredible skill. I found myself in post-Windrush London where new people are making the capital their home and the huge social change is causing friction. As one mixed race character observes ‘she was no longer the odd one out’ as she went to the market. More people are arriving, wandering the streets, weighed down by layers thrown on haphazardly as the reality of a British winter starts to bite. However, as those first pioneers answered the call from the motherland, they’d found London not at all what they were expecting. The British government had put that call out to its colonies. They needed workers, to replace those men lost in WW2 and to rebuild cities recovering from the Blitz. Yet no one seemed grateful, no one said thank you and the living was far from easy.
We follow two main characters: Lawrie and Evie. They are courting in the old fashioned sense. Lawrie sees in Evie a nice girl, a girl who has been well brought up even though she has never known her father. He wants to do things properly, do right by her. So he calls and they go to the cinema or for a walk. Lawrie has come over from Jamaica and works part time as a musician in a local band and full time as a postman, with a sideline in the odd special black market delivery too. Evie has lived in London her whole life with her mother Agnes. They have been Lawrie’s neighbours ever since a rented room opened up at the house next door. The two women understand prejudice, because they too have been victims of it, and live a life kept very much to themselves. Evie is mixed race and Agnes, who is white, has been the subject of gossip and judgement ever since she Evie was born. So, although what transpires in the book may be shocking to us, it barely surprises them, because they know how people feel about any sort of difference from the white British norm.
The story splits into two time frames approximately one year apart. In one, Lawrie is cutting across Clapham Common at the end of his postal route when he hears a woman shouting. She has found a baby in the pond. Lawrie rushes to help, but they are both too late. The baby becomes the book’s central mystery and because she has black skin, suspicion falls upon the already beleaguered Jamaican community. Rathbone, is the police officer assigned to the case and he relishes causing problems for the community. His suspicions fall on Lawrie, as the first man on the scene, but Rathbone doesn’t just investigate, he sets out to ruin Lawrie’s life. However, there is a secret to this baby’s background that is closer to home than Lawrie imagines.
I found myself rooting for Lawrie and Evie. I wanted them to be able to make marriage plans and live the simple, quiet life they dreamed about. Her mother Agnes has had to be very strong, being an unmarried mother of a mixed race child meant being ostracised. Evie has a childhood memory of her mother having the neighbours for tea when, against her instructions, Evie was caught looking down through the banisters. They never have tea for the neighbours again. It takes Evie several years to make the link; she is the reason her mum has no friends or visitors. This same hostility is now experienced by the men who arrived on the Windrush and it must have been bewildering. To be asked to this country, to fill a shortage of labour and pull a country out of difficulty, then meet nothing but hostility and suspicion from its people seems so unjust.
A lot of the tension in the novel is around sex and relationships. When the band are booked to play a wedding, the British host is immediately taken aback but decides they can play. All is well until a woman stumbles on the dance floor and one of the band rushes to help. Her husband doesn’t appreciate his wife being touched by a black man and a brawl breaks out causing the band to run for their lives. Provocative women, like the character Rose, stir up tension even more. The men refer to her as Rita Hayworth, the red-haired Hollywood bombshell. When the men first arrive she helps with getting them settled. Then she offers to take Lawrie and his friend to the Lido, dazzling them in her bikini and flirting with Lawrie. She makes it very clear that she wants him with no thought to the consequences if her husband finds out. Interracial relationships are simply not accepted. As Agnes points out, her daughter Evie is far better off in a long term relationship with Lawrie, because although they come from very different places, society will view them as the same due to their skin colour.
I felt immersed in this world the author has created. From the cold mornings on Lawrie’s postal round, to the smoky nightclubs the band plays into the early hours. This is my grandparents generation so I could also imagine the homes, the struggle of still being on rations and for the women, trying to look nice on a tight budget. It reminded me of stories my grandma and great- aunts told me about going out dancing in post-war Liverpool. I felt so much for Evie, especiallywhen her whole story unfolded towards the end of the novel. There is a whole cast of interesting characters, but Evie and Lawrie are this novel’s heart and I desperately wanted life to work out for them. Louise Hare has written a vibrant book with an incredible sense of place and time, and interesting characters. I loved it.
Thanks to HQ and NetGalley for this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
If you liked this novel try Andrea Levy’s Small Island, adapted into a TV series by the BBC and now a play at the National Theatre.