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All Yardley and soda

Books | May 2016


Emily Bearn on Anthony Quinn

All Yardley and soda

Emily Bearn

Freya

by Anthony Quinn

Jonathan Cape £14.99

Anthony Quinn is a former film critic who has started belting out historical novels in middle age. (This is his fifth in six years.) His books have received glowing reviews, which have tended to celebrate Quinn’s power to please rather than provoke. As one critic put it, he is the sort of novelist you read ‘sitting in a deck chair eating chocs’. True to form, Freya is a treat – but it contains moments to make the jaw slacken.

The heroine of the book’s title is the daughter of Stephen Wyley, the debonair portrait-painter who cavorted through Quinn’s last book, Curtain Call, but has now calmed with age and takes a back seat. The story begins in London in 1945, when Freya is twenty. It is VE Day and in a gin-fuelled fog she meets Nancy, an eighteen-year-old aspiring novelist who, like her, has a place at Oxford. Off to the dreaming spires they go, and after a honeymoon spring everything starts to unravel when they become entangled with the same man.

This novel is both longer and denser than Curtain Call. The action spans twenty years, following Freya’s career as a journalist in London, and Nancy’s as the novelist wife of a philandering and aridly ambitious MP. By the end the plot has thickened to include pimps, a dead model and homophobic blackmail at the MoD – but it is the relationship between Freya and Nancy that remains the story’s backbone. ‘Some men,’ Freya muses, ‘could never quite grasp friendship between women.’ But Quinn makes up for their shortcomings, and the real cliffhanger of this brilliantly suspenseful novel is whether the comet fire of Freya and Nancy’s youthful friendship will burn on, or peter out in a middle-aged fizzle.

For Quinn, this period is relatively modern territory. His second novel, Half of the Human Race, imagined a romance between a suffragette and a cricketer; ###i/i### was set in the Victorian slums of north London. It is sometimes said that historical fiction is, by definition, constricted by the need to get things right. No one wants to make the mistakes of Downton Abbey and drive a 1921 Model T Ford into a scene set in 1912. But Quinn feels far too confident to suffer any imaginative restraint. His skill lies in his ability to milk all the nostalgic appeal of his milieu – mullioned pub windows, hushed cloisters, girls bursting into parties in clouds of Yardley – while letting his fancy run rip.

In lesser hands, characters such as Nathaniel Fane – a dandy from Pinner who sails through Oxford speaking in a ‘purring baritone’ and dining on shellfish and Puligny – might have amounted to pastiche. But Quinn is too sharp-eyed, and even his most outlandish characters can bewitch and repel in equal measure. He is particularly good on the trancelike self-absorption of youth: ‘I don’t feel the urge to study modern literature … I’d prefer to write it,’ says Freya, before quitting Oxford to make a head start in Fleet Street. Youthful vanity is exposed in all its fragility and in the end everyone is stripped bare. Literally, in the case of Fane, who turns out to be a sadomasochist: ‘I thought I’d be a gentleman and give you the first whack,’ he says, when Freya finds him in his room in Magdalen, bent over a chair.

Oxonian readers of a nostalgic disposition will doubtless find much to savour. But Quinn never wallows in his scenery too long. Chapters crescendo towards cliffhanger endings, and the narrative whips on to its immensely satisfying end.

So is Quinn too utterly pleasing a writer to pack an intellectual punch? When Elizabeth Taylor’s novel Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was shortlisted for the Booker, it was said to have been doomed when Saul Bellow – one of the judges – complained of the ‘tinkle of teacups’. There is not a lot of tea drunk here, but there is the clinking of Negroni glasses, and much tinkling of soda syphons and bottles of Dewar’s. Perhaps it’s all this lavish refreshment that destines Quinn to be read with chocs. But I’d say it’s a pretty good commendation.


This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now