‘Front Desk’ by Kelly Yang

“I used to think being successful meant having enough to eat, but now that I was getting free lunch at school, I wondered if I should set my standards higher.”

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (Australian cover)

It’s 1993 and ten-year-old Mia Tang has migrated from China to America with her parents. They’d hoped for a better life in the Land of the Free, but they’re reduced to living out of their car and taking whatever badly-paid casual jobs they can find. It seems like a miracle when Mr Yao, the owner of a motel near Disneyland, offers them accommodation plus wages if they’ll manage his motel. There’s even a swimming pool! But ‘coal-hearted’ Mr Yao exploits them mercilessly, penalising them for infractions of his ever-changing rules (and he definitely doesn’t want Mia or anyone else actually swimming in the pool). Mia’s parents exhaust themselves with the constant cleaning, laundry and repairs, while Mia appoints herself front desk manager, dealing with missing keys, stolen cars and belligerent drunks. Things are even worse for her at school, where her teacher criticises her English and Mr Yao’s nasty son encourages the class to laugh at Mia’s cheap clothes. Mia’s only schoolfriend Lupe, a Mexican immigrant, is convinced the two of them are stuck on a “rollercoaster” of poverty that they can never get off, but Mia, with the help of the motel’s permanent residents, finds a way to improve the lives of her family and friends.

The author does an admirable job of addressing some heavy topics – including racism, immigration and poverty – in an accessible way for middle-grade readers, but Front Desk is also an engrossing and entertaining story featuring a smart, creative heroine. Mia is far from perfect, but she has a good heart and she learns from her many mistakes. The other characters are similarly nuanced. Mia’s mother loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but her ambition combined with their desperate circumstances can make her ruthless. Mia’s father is more sympathetic, but he’s fairly inept. Mia’s teacher, though well-meaning, is clueless about Mia’s struggles. Both Mr Yao and a Chinese-American security guard hold appallingly racist views about African-Americans. And even Mr Yao’s horrible son, bullied by his own father, finds the courage to be compassionate when Mia needs his help.

'Front Desk' by Kelly Yang (US cover)It’s especially nice that books and writing (and an enormous thesaurus) are the key to most of Mia’s eventual successes, whether she’s penning a threatening letter to the exploitative boss of an illegal immigrant friend or she’s writing down her family’s story to win a class competition. I must admit that the novel’s conclusion seemed implausibly optimistic and saccharine to me, but by that stage, I was so happy to see good triumph over evil that I didn’t mind too much. The author, Kelly Yang, provides useful notes at the end of the book, explaining that Mia’s story is based on her own experiences helping her migrant parents run motels in California in the 1980s and 1990s. She notes that these immigrants were “particularly vulnerable to exploitation and hardship. No group of Chinese immigrants before or since came with quite so little and gave up quite so much.” Front Desk offers a strong argument in favour of #OwnVoices, because it rings with authenticity. Its messages about immigration and racism are sadly relevant today, but don’t be put off, thinking this is all Serious Discussion of Worthy Issues – it’s simply a good, fun, heartwarming story.

What I’ve Been Reading: Novels by Women

'The Gathering' by Anne Enright

The Gathering by Anne Enright was an engrossing novel about a dysfunctional Irish Catholic family and specifically, about the terrible consequences of covering up abusive behaviour. It was often frustrating to read because the narrator was so unreliable – how can we hope for justice when we can’t be sure of the truth? – but this is entirely consistent with how a child’s memory of trauma works. The back-and-forth timeline was effective, if occasionally confusing, and the prose was visceral and vivid. It gave me nightmares, but I’m glad I read it and I think it was a worthy winner of the Booker Prize.

'Winter' by Ali Smith

Winter by Ali Smith was even more confusing, but provided a more pleasant reading experience. It’s a meandering, whimsical piece of writing about an elderly woman who is being followed around her Cornish mansion by a disembodied head. Sophia and Head then find themselves hosting some unwelcome family guests at Christmas. It’s not a conventional narrative, but it’s often very funny and the author has a lot of thoughtful things to say about politics, art, feminism, climate change, family relationships, social media and much, much more. I was struck by how contemporary this book was – it was published last year and contains references not just to Brexit, but Trump’s speech to the Boy Scouts, the Grenfell Tower fire and the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean.

'Clock Dance' by Anne Tyler

I don’t think Clock Dance by Anne Tyler is her best novel, but it’s enjoyable and thoughtful and ultimately satisfying in a way I didn’t expect. Much like Ladder of Years, it’s the story of a middle-aged woman with a horrible husband and unappreciative offspring, who travels to a new community where she makes friends and is valued for her kindness and home-making abilities. It has a few too many self-consciously quirky Baltimore characters and is a little too willing to avoid some dark topics, but I liked it very much.

'Bluebottle' by Belinda Castles

Finally, Bluebottle by Belinda Castles was an intriguing read. It’s another dysfunctional-family-forced-to-confront-past-trauma story (Are there any happy families in novels? Would there be any point in writing about them?), but this one is set in the northern beach suburbs of Sydney and contains some beautifully vivid descriptions of the sea and beach. The cover suggests it’s a thriller, but while there is tension in the narrative, it builds slowly and the Big Revelation is not exactly a surprise. I was more interested in the skillful depiction of some believably flawed characters doing their best to cope with a terrible situation. (Although I do think the author let Tricia off too lightly. I despised Tricia.)

‘How Not To Be A Boy’ by Robert Webb

'How Not To Be A Boy' by Robert WebbI really liked How Not To Be A Boy by Robert Webb, a funny, thoughtful and moving memoir about a boy who absorbed a lot of toxic messages about masculinity – and what happened when he grew up to be a man. I wasn’t familiar with the author, but he’s an English comedian and actor who was in Peep Show and lots of other shows (I also discovered he does a very amusing impression of Mr Darcy). What sets this book apart from most celebrity memoirs is that Robert Webb can actually write and he has much more interesting things to write about than the usual How I Became A Famous Person On The Telly stuff.

He grew up in a dysfunctional working-class Lincolnshire family, with several older brothers and a violent, philandering, alcoholic father. Robert writes with a great deal of insight and humour about the ‘rules’ of boyhood – boys are loud and boisterous, boys don’t read, boys love sport, boys are brave and reckless, boys hate school, boys don’t cry, boys don’t fall in love with other boys – and how terrible he was at following any of these rules. Eventually, his mother threw his father out and married another man who was still fairly useless, although not actually violent or drunk. But then Robert’s beloved mother died of cancer when he was in his final year of school. Despite being suicidally depressed, Robert managed to become the first person in his family to attend university, became president of the Cambridge Footlights Dramatic Club and began his successful career as a comedian and actor.

But inside, he was a mess, and he took out his feelings of unacknowledged grief, shame, guilt and insecurity on his friends, colleagues and family. Despite being determined not to be like his father, he drank too much, he lost himself in work, and he was emotionally and physically unavailable to his wife and children. Fortunately for him, his wife didn’t give up on him and he was intelligent and introspective enough to go to therapy, cut down on the drinking and eventually, write this book.

He doesn’t actually call himself a feminist, but says he agrees with what feminists say and he quotes from and recommends Cordelia Fine’s excellent book, Delusions of Gender, so top marks from me for that. He also has a lot of sensible things to say to Men’s Rights Activists, who “tend to make a series of valid observations from which they proceed to a single, 180-degree-wrong conclusion.” Men’s documented problems with high suicide rates, alcoholism, imprisonment and premature death are not due to women or to feminism, he points out. These problems are due to the toxic rules of masculinity. Men turn to drugs and alcohol and self-harm because the rules say they can’t admit weakness or ask for help. They die younger than women of preventable diseases because they refuse to take their health seriously and go to the doctor. They’re violent because society tells boys and men to be aggressive and bottle up their emotions. “Feminists are not out to get us,” he says. “They’re out to get the patriarchy. They don’t hate men, they hate The Man. They’re our mates.”

As you’d gather from those pronouns, this isn’t a book aimed at women. It’s aimed at the men who grew up with the same sort of male role models as the author. It’s about and for the men who were similarly unable to follow the impossible rules of masculinity and are suffering the consequences of this. Of course, feminists have been banging on, for a very long time, about how society’s rigid gender rules harm men as well as women, but the men who need to hear this don’t listen to women. In fact, they viciously attack women who say this sort of thing. Still, Robert Webb is pretty good at acknowledging how privileged he is and how some of his unpleasant experiences (for example, being awkwardly chatted up by a gay man on a beach) are fairly mild compared to the constant and sometimes life-threatening harassment of women. How Not To Be A Boy would be an excellent book for teenage boys and men, but women may also gain from reading this insider’s view of masculinity. Apart from anything else, it’s often very funny.

What I’ve Been Reading: Non-Fiction

At the end of last year, I resolved to blog more about books I’d enjoyed. Mmm, that’s been going well, hasn’t it? Anyway, I have been reading more this year, but for some reason, I’ve been underwhelmed by a lot of the fiction I’ve read. Fortunately, I’ve had more success with non-fiction books.

'The Disaster Artist' by Greg Sestero and Tom BissellThe most intriguing and entertaining book has definitely been The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside ‘The Room’, The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made. I have never seen The Room, a cult favourite “revered for its inadequacy and its peerless ability to induce uncontrollable laughter”, although this collection of scenes gives some indication of its er, unique qualities. The Disaster Artist is narrated by Greg Sestero, a handsome young all-American guy who dreams of becoming a Hollywood star. At one of his acting classes, he meets Tommy Wiseau, who speaks largely incomprehensible sentences in a thick Eastern European accent and has a burning desire to be the next James Dean, despite being a very weird-looking middle-aged man with dyed black hair and no discernible acting talent. Tommy latches onto Greg like Tom Ripley attaching himself to Dickie Greenleaf, and the two become unlikely friends, roommates and (eventually) co-stars in a movie that Tommy decides to write, direct, produce and finance himself. The Disaster Artist describes the process of making a movie with no coherent plot, full of dialogue that no real person would ever speak, designed and shot according to Tommy’s bizarre and inept direction.

Interspersed with the film-making melodrama is an account of Greg and Tommy’s strange relationship, as Greg tries to figure out why Tommy is the way he is. Tommy gradually reveals something of his background, although the more we learn, the more confusing his story becomes. Is he suffering from PTSD caused by his experiences when escaping from behind the Iron Curtain? Did the near-fatal car accidents he claimed to have been involved in cause brain damage that has left him unable to remember and recite the simplest lines of dialogue (which he wrote himself)? Is he a deeply repressed and unhappy homosexual? Is he simply a refugee struggling to belong in a foreign land? At times, it seems Greg is being a bit mean, making fun of a man with such obvious problems – but Tommy is more often a bully than a victim, manipulating others to get his way, throwing massive tantrums, humiliating the young actress who plays his on-screen love interest, screaming homophobic abuse at the one crew member who calls out Tommy for his blatant lying. And Tommy, far from objecting to Greg’s account, has welcomed the attention the book and its recent movie adaptation have brought to him. He’s still friends with Greg – in fact, they’ve just made another movie together (in which Tommy plays an eccentric mortician, which seems more appropriate than the all-American hero he tried to portray in The Room). The Disaster Artist is a fascinating psychological study of a very strange man, but it’s also an interesting look at creativity, ambition and the American Dream.

'The Durrells of Corfu' by Michael HaagI also enjoyed The Durrells of Corfu by Michael Haag, about the family who produced two celebrated authors – Lawrence Durrell and his even more famous younger brother, Gerald Durrell. I was especially interested to read about the Durrells’ life before and after Corfu, which turned out to be far less amusing than Gerry implied in his books. Both parents and all the siblings were born in India, where the eldest daughter died of diphtheria, choking to death in her mother’s arms while four-year-old Larry watched. Then, when Gerry was still a toddler, their father died and their mother decided to ship the family ‘home’ to England, which proved to be cold and unwelcoming. Their subsequent escape to Corfu wasn’t a whim, as Gerry depicted in his books, but a desperate attempt by Larry to save his mother, who had fallen into alcoholism and a deep depression.

Fortunately, life improved somewhat in the sun. This book has lots of excerpts from the siblings’ books, letters and journals, as well as fascinating family photos, but the author also sorts out fiction from facts. For example, while Gerry portrayed all his tutors as bachelors, most of these men were actually husbands and fathers – in fact, Theodore’s daughter, Alexia, was Gerry’s best friend and both families hoped they’d get married (they didn’t). Larry himself was married to Nancy Myers, a beautiful English artist, and there are descriptions of visits from their famous bohemian friends, including Henry Miller, which caused local outrage due to naked sea-bathing and other scandalous goings-on. Sadly, war broke out in 1939 and the family’s carefree life was over. Gerry and his mother left for England immediately, but Larry, Nancy and their baby daughter ended up fleeing from the Nazis in an overcrowded boat to Egypt; Margo married a pilot and ended up in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp in Ethiopia, where she “gave birth by Caesarean section, without anaesthetic, to their first son”; and Leslie, having impregnated and abandoned their Greek maid, went on to a life of depravity. This book is a good introduction to the real story of this fascinating, unconventional family of mythmakers.

‘The Endsister’ by Penni Russon

'The Endsister' by Penni RussonI really enjoyed The Endsister, a thoughtful and beautifully composed ghost story for young readers. The Outhwaite family decide to uproot themselves from their comfortable semi-rural Australian life when they inherit a large, dusty house in London. Of course, this house turns out to be haunted, although the two girl ghosts, Almost Annie and Hardly Alice, drift about harmlessly, noticed only by the youngest Outhwaite, four-year-old Sibbi. But there’s something far more malevolent lurking behind the locked attic door: “a cobwebbed thing, tattered and dusty, so long forgotten, so long forgetting.” This dreaded Endsister seems to be sucking the life out of poor lonely Sibbi and feeding on the unhappiness of the older Outhwaites, especially teenage Else, trying to discover who she is now that she’s abandoned her once-beloved violin, and Olly, their mother, who’s left behind her friends and teaching job and is toiling fruitlessly at her PhD thesis.

All of the characters are vividly drawn, with the story told mostly from the perspective of Else, Sibbi and their stoic, nature-loving brother, Clancy. The descriptive prose is lovely and the family’s squabbles are both funny and sadly true to life. I was interested to read that this story was initially conceived as a weekly serial, because the narrative is complex and cleverly constructed, neatly looping back on itself – as Clancy concludes, it is “a story that ends where it begins: a story about coming home.” The revelation of the Endsister’s mystery is poignant and deeply satisfying, and there’s a lot to contemplate in this book about memory, creativity and belonging.

In fact, this novel is so intricate and ruminative that it won’t be for all young readers. It’s also quite spine-chilling in parts (the scene with Sibbi in the study gave me the creeps, although admittedly, I am easily spooked). The publisher says it’s for 10-14 year olds – I’d recommend it for readers in that age group, and older, who enjoy thoughtful, character-based stories.

As I was reading The Endsister, I was reminded of Come Back, Lucy by Pamela Sykes, a very spooky children’s book written in the 1970s that I’d thought no one (except for me and presumably Pamela Sykes) had ever read, although I have just discovered that it was made into a terrifying-looking television series and that there was a sequel novel called Lucy Beware! (because apparently Lucy didn’t learn anything from her first experience of being haunted). Here’s my beloved Puffin paperback copy:

'Come Back, Lucy' by Pamela Sykes

Lucy is an unhappy orphan sent to live with her youthful aunt, uncle and cousins, who are renovating a large Victorian-era house in London. Up in the dusty attic, Lucy encounters ghostly Alice, who at first seems to be the only one who truly understands and cares for Lucy. Alice, though, is gradually revealed to be capricious and self-centred, with sinister plans for Lucy … But does Alice really exist? Are Lucy’s experiences actually due to repressed grief and loneliness? Come Back, Lucy would be an excellent companion read for The Endsister, if you can get hold of a copy. As added incentive, the Puffin edition has lots of fab 1970s illustrations by Tessa Jordan:

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

'Come Back, Lucy', illustration by Tessa Jordan

‘End of Term’, Part Seven

Chapter Nine: Right Way Round

The narrative point of view in this book is all over the place, in a way that would exasperate most of the editors I’ve worked with. While the story is mostly told from Nicola’s perspective, it’s not uncommon for the reader to find herself suddenly inside the head of a completely different character for a single paragraph (for example, look at the end of Chapter One, when there’s an abrupt and unnecessary change to Ann’s point of view, before it swaps back to Nicola for the final two paragraphs). But I think Antonia Forest chose well when she decided the Nativity Play should be seen (mostly) through Patrick’s eyes. He knows enough about the people in this chapter (those on-stage and off-stage) that it’s not too confusing for him, but we get extra insight into them from his outsider’s perspective. He also understands more about the religious story than many of the participants – certainly more than Lawrie, and even many readers (for instance, I had only the vaguest notion about St Stephen before reading this).

Anyway, this chapter starts with the Merrick family arriving at the Minster to watch the play. Daks has been rescued from Esther’s house and is curled up happily in their car, waiting to be transferred to the Marlows. The Merricks sit up the front of the packed Minster (Three thousand people! No wonder Esther was terrified!) beside Mrs Marlow, Madame Orly, Karen and Rowan. Patrick is shocked when the exquisite voice leading the choir procession turns out to belong to Nicola, although not half as shocked as Nicola’s grandmother (“Surely not”, she keeps muttering, even when Nicola’s walking right past her). Patrick’s also impressed by the Reading Angel, until he realises it’s Evil Lois and then he thinks:

“…how queer it was that what people were like had no connection whatever with what they could actually do. Like Coleridge: like Mozart: and now here was this dire twerp of a Lois Sanger…”

At this point, Rowan and Patrick chivalrously give up their seats to some querulous old women, but luckily find their way to the empty gallery, where they can look down the central aisle to the whole scene and give us a lovely description of what’s going on. Patrick is impressed by Miranda, an unmoving falcon-angel who reminds him of Regina, and by Ann’s serenity, and by the sight of dear idiotic little Sprog being carried in by the King’s page.

But it’s Lawrie who steals the show playing the youngest shepherd, forced by his brothers to guard the sheep instead of visiting the infant Christ, then rescued by the Archangel Gabriel and sent off to the stable, where he gives his only possession, his shepherd’s crook, to the baby, “Lest He too, one day, should be a shepherd”. Lawrie’s performance has lots of clever links back to real-life scenes in the book, most clearly when Lawrie decides not to weep noisily in disappointment as the stage directions say, but to use the “pit-bottomed blackness” she’d felt when she discovered Nicola was to be Shepherd Boy:

“But she knew how she’d behaved: she remembered perfectly how she’d put her hands over her face; she’d rehearsed it quite often in her bath cubicle.”

Even Rowan gets choked up at this scene. Of course, being Lawrie, she’s completely aware of how good she is in the role, running up to see Patrick and Rowan when she’s not on stage and gloating about Esther’s absence and how it’s “maddening I didn’t know in time to invite Ellen Holroyd”, her theatrical mentor. As Rowan says, Lawrie really is a ghastly child.

We get some glimpses of Nicola’s viewpoint – her relief that Sprog is behaving himself on stage, her sudden terror when the entire congregation rises to its feet in place of applause, then her deep breath as she prepares to sing her final solo:

“Try to sing it with regret,” Dr Herrick had said. “Once in Royal David’s City. Not now, you see. Now we have only been pretending. But once, long ago, if only we’d had the luck to be there, once, just once, this thing really happened.”

Nicola, for the first time, manages to do it as he asked, and there’s a lovely description from Patrick of her “immaculate succession of notes, lifting and drifting among the soaring pillars and arches as he had seen thistledown lift and drift one evening in the watermeadows, floating away at last above the trees”. Patrick watches her silent, brief conversation with Miranda and muses how different people can be in different situations, “as if everyone had a spoonful of chameleon blood and changed colour a little, depending on their companions.”

Chapter Ten: And After

Afterwards Mrs Marlow does the usual Marlow thing, refusing to acknowledge how amazing her daughters were, but fortunately Mrs Merrick is there to praise Ginty’s beauty, Ann’s sincerity, Lawrie’s acting skills and Nicola’s singing. Mr Merrick reminds Mrs Marlow he has a puppy for her and Mrs Marlow has quite a lot to say about Nicola’s “frightful impudence” in asking him to collect Daks. Mr Merrick kindly points out that Nicola asked for a favour, rather than ordered him, and it was all to help Esther. None of the adults are very impressed with Esther’s “neglectful mother” (there is no mention of Esther’s even more neglectful father). Finally, Mrs Merrick asks if Madame Orly, who’s been strangely silent, is all right and Mrs Marlow explains that it’s just that her mother is in shock that her “grand-daughters could be anything but a grubby nuisance”.

Meanwhile, Nicola and Miranda are discussing how the play went as they walk back through the silent, snowy grounds. They think Lawrie was excellent (“Of course, Lawrie is frightened of lots of things. I suppose that’s how she knew.”) and Miranda says she enjoyed being in the play, once she got over her initial terror, but that the whole Christmas story seemed so unbelievable:

“And then it seemed so queer, that p’raps that was the reason people believed it … I mean, it’s either complete nonsense, or else it’s so unlikely, it would have to be true.”

I don’t see why things being extremely unlikely make them more believable, but then, that’s why I’m a sceptic and an atheist. Earlier Miranda had explained her family wasn’t Orthodox, but even if she’s from a Reform Jewish background, presumably she does believe in a God and follows some ‘God-ordained’ rules. Hopefully there’ll be more about this in future books, because Miranda’s such an interesting character.

Alas, all good things must come to an end, and a furious Miss Keith is waiting for them. She thanks Miranda for her help but “shall, of course, be writing to your father to explain” (why not Miranda’s mother?) and orders them all to see her in her office on Monday. Blood for breakfast! But Nicola’s natural optimism comes to the rescue:

“…after all, Monday was a long way off, and Thursday and end-of-term, by some curious converse, really quite near. And after that came Christmas. So it couldn’t be too awful.”

THE END.

And a big happy sigh from me. This has been my favourite Marlow book so far. I liked the first school book, but this took it to a new level, with such clever plotting and complex characterisation and thoughtful observations on life and lots of humour. Now I just have to wait for Girls Gone By to publish the next book.

You might also be interested in reading:

‘End of Term’ by Antonia Forest
‘End of Term, Part Two
‘End of Term’, Part Three
‘End of Term’, Part Four
‘End of Term’, Part Five
‘End of Term’, Part Six

‘End of Term’, Part Six

Chapter Eight: As It Turned Out

The play looms and there’s further discussion about it in the art room. Miranda says it’s odd they’re all so unreligious about the play and Lawrie makes an unexpected contribution:

I should have thought,” said Lawrie decidedly, “that it was more important to make the audience feel religious than be it yourself.”

When Miranda asks if that’s possible, if you yourself don’t feel religious, Lawrie says that of course you can – that’s acting. Lawrie has the occasional thoughtful observation, but it has to fight its way through the tangle of ridiculousness that fills her head. No wonder she drives her teachers round the bend. I bet there are lots of priests and vicars and pastors who have given up believing what they preach, but have to fake sincerity each Sunday at the pulpit because leaving their career would be too much of an upheaval in their lives.

Lawrie’s observation only deepens the “chilly sense of inadequacy” Nicola feels in her Shepherd Boy role, especially as even Bunty, the Second Former carrying Sprog in the play, says Nicola and Lawrie should swap roles. But then on the morning of the play – major drama! Esther gets a letter from her terrible mother saying they’re moving to a new flat which doesn’t allow pets, so not only does Esther have to stay at school for the first part of the holidays during the move, but Daks will be sent “to the kennels”, which Esther interprets as the poor puppy being killed (not an unreasonable notion, given the way her parents have behaved so far). This is just too much for Esther on top of everything else, and when neither Miranda nor Nicola can console her, she’s taken off to the san by Matron, who for once, sounds “quite kind” because Esther is so obviously distraught.

I have to say, as someone who was sent off to board when I was ten, LEAVING MY DOG BEHIND, I am having ALL THE FEELINGS about Esther right now.

Anyway, Miranda and Nicola come up with a clever plan. Miranda will invite Esther to her house for the first part of the holidays (Nicola can’t because of Grandmother) and Nicola will buy Daks and then Laurie can bring him to school next term as her pet. They’ll have to phone various parents to organise this, though, and Nicola’s mother loathes the phone, especially phoning strangers, so Nicola has the good idea to call Mr Merrick. The only thing is, he might be at work and “if you telephoned the House of Commons the person who answered would, obviously, be Mr. Churchill”. (I could just picture Churchill, sitting alone at a desk in the foyer, answering phone calls in a fog of cigar smoke.)

Luckily, Miss Kempe spots her two most “sensible, reliable” pupils and sends them into town to shop for last-minute play requirements, so they can call from a phone box. (So much easier to create plot complications when no one has a mobile phone.) Nicola then learns more about Miranda’s life – that she lives at a very grand address and must be “really rich”, but also that “very, very occasionally you get people who don’t like being friends with Jews”, including a girl in IV B who “talks about Jew girls” and “Marie Dobson would like to”. Nicola is shocked and horrified:

“She had a muddled feeling she ought to apologize for the stupidity and bad manners of her countrymen, only, since they were Miranda’s too, it would sound pretty silly.”

Given Miranda is one of the chief bullies of Marie, I wonder what’s cause and what’s effect. Does Miranda bully Marie unmercifully because Marie is anti-Semitic or does Marie use (or think, as she doesn’t seem to do it aloud) anti-Semitic abuse against Miranda in retaliation for the bullying, or are the bullying and the anti-Semitism unrelated? (Miranda also refers to the IV B girl as “that common little soul with the perm and the Jaguar”.) These characters are all so complex, with complicated motivations – even the admirable ones (and Miranda is mostly admirable) are far from perfect.

It also turns out Miranda’s family is Polish and her real family name is some long, unspellable Polish name. I wonder if that’s why Antonia Forest used the example of Polish Catholics being persecuted earlier?

Mr Merrick, by the way, agrees to collect Daks from Esther’s mother and deliver the pup to the Marlow house, even saying he’ll adopt Daks if Nicola’s mother won’t. Mr Merrick is pretty much the only kind, sensitive and sensible adult in this entire series.

Back at school, the girls try to tell Esther they’ve started sorting things out, but Matron refuses to let them disturb Esther or even give her a message. Then there’s a great bit when Val the Head Girl comes in, in utter disbelief, to tell Nicola “Your Member of Parliament wants to speak to you” and hooray, it’s all sorted with Mr Merrick! But when they try to find Esther to tell her, they discover she’s run away home, leaving a note for Miranda! Should they tell the teachers? Will this get Esther into terrible trouble? What if Esther manages to make it back in time for the play?

Then Nicola has her brainwave. She gathers Lawrie and Tim and tells them the news, astutely leaving it to Tim to put it all together and say it out loud. With Esther away, Nicola and Lawrie can swap. Lawrie will be Shepherd Boy, Nicola will go back to singing her solos, and Miranda will be Candle Angel instead of Esther. But they can’t tell the teachers, otherwise they’ll use “ghastly drip Helen Bagshawe”, the official Shepherd Boy understudy.

Miranda would love to be in the play, but worries everyone else will mind, with her being Jewish. She tosses a coin to decide, “tails I don’t”, then when it comes down tails, decides to do it anyway. They make it to the Minster all right, but are pulled up outside the changing rooms by the teachers, including Miss Cromwell, who’s just spoken with Esther’s mother. Then it all comes out. Tim is in big trouble for lying that Esther was on the other bus. Then Lawrie puts her foot in it when she realises they won’t let her be Shepherd Boy after all:

“But I must. It’s why I let Nick play in the match. I made a bargain. I said if I let Nick have one match, They’d got to let me do the Shepherd Boy –”

Miss Cromwell asks with whom Lawrie made this bargain and Lawrie “waved her hand vaguely at the ceiling”, presumably at Athene and Jupiter and St Luke and Zeus and St Therese, and Miss Cromwell nearly explodes. Blood for breakfast! All is lost!

Except, no, here comes Dr Herrick, who explains that Esther’s understudy is Nicola, so of course, Nicola must sing and no, of course, Helen can’t be the Shepherd Boy, she’s hopeless. So it’s sorted, except who will be Nicola’s Candle Angel partner? Miranda is the only logical choice, but Miss Kempe worries that “some people would take great exception” to a Jewish angel in the Minster and anyway, what would Miranda’s father think about his daughter “being shanghai’d into a Nativity Play”? Janice is again the soul of reason, pointing out that outsiders won’t know and a Jewish angel is hardly like “the Oberammergau Christ turning out to be the district’s leading Nazi”. (I forgot to say earlier that Grandmother’s Christ figurine in her bedroom is an Oberammergau Christ, and I wondered at the time if that might be a subtle hint at her Nazi-sympathising.)

Miss Kempe moans that she “can’t start arguing the metaphysics of the case” (you should probably be in a different book series, then, Miss Kempe), but helplessly agrees to go along with it as long as Miranda’s father won’t object. So Nicola finds Miranda, who’s furious about being snubbed earlier, but Nicola manages to convince Miranda that they were only worried about her father. Miranda says he won’t mind:

“I mean, it’s only a play to me. It’s not as if – well, as if I was going to believe anything different, or anyone wanted me to, or anything.”

But as they’re waiting in the Minster for the play to start, a small child is mesmerised by Miranda’s convincing angel-impression and Nicola starts to feel a bit overwhelmed by the responsibility of re-enacting the first Christmas.

Next, Chapter Nine: Right Way Round

‘End of Term’, Part Five

Chapter Six: A Change of Cast

Miranda has been watching the play rehearsals secretly, so she’s there to witness Miss Kempe’s frustration with Jess’s terrible rendition of Shepherd Boy, Dr Herrick making Ginty the Archangel Gabriel, and Tim giving an impertinent but useful suggestion about stage direction. Then, what a surprise, Jess suddenly can’t do Shepherd Boy! Her father has to fly to South Africa to investigate I.D.B (which I think is Illegal Diamond Buying) and is taking his whole family with him! (As if expats working in the colonies didn’t always put their children in English boarding school. Personally, I would have given Jess a broken leg or glandular fever or something else a bit more plausible.) Miss Kempe tries to convince Miss Keith that Lawrie should have the part, but the best she can manage is being allowed to have Nicola.

Nicola is very happy when she’s told, about not having to sing a solo, although surely having a lead acting role would be just as stressful? But then Lawrie bursts in, convinced she has the role. They race off to the noticeboard to check, and yes, it’s Nicola.

“Look, Lal” (Nicola used the baby name she hadn’t used for years), “I’m most awfully sorry. Truly I am.” Which was true. The pleasure of being Shepherd Boy was gone for ever.

Nicola is much more gracious about it than Lawrie would ever be. Lawrie tells Nicola she hates her and to get away and fetch Tim, which Nicola obediently does. Tim’s reaction is even worse:

“Why didn’t you say you wouldn’t do it? You knew how Lawrie would feel.”
“But – Yes, I know, but –”
“You really are the end,” said Tim, eyeing her with an angry, hostile look. “Honestly, there are times when I could hit you, you’re so stupid.”

Nicola has no control over the play’s casting, as Tim knows perfectly well, but the really awful thing is Tim’s presumption that she understands Lawrie better than Lawrie’s identical twin. Lawrie, literally sick with disappointment, goes off to the san with Tim, while Nicola contemplates her ex-friendship with Tim, remembering all their quarrels and that Tim had only written to Lawrie in the holidays:

“[Nicola] took it for granted that people liked her better than Lawrie. Only Tim didn’t. Tim liked Lawrie best … And then she was ashamed – a cold, squirming apprehension that probably she’d butted in, often, when she wasn’t really wanted.”

Poor Nicola! At least she has Miranda as a friend now. As well as Esther and Sally and Elizabeth and nearly everyone else, because Nicola is simply a nicer person and better friend than Lawrie. I can see why Tim would find Nicola’s Moral Uprightness a bit much, but I can’t see why Tim puts up with Lawrie’s self-centredness and immaturity. Unless Tim likes being the Superior One in their friendship, always knowing more than Lawrie? Or thinks Lawrie is going to be a superstar in the future and Tim likes the idea of being the best friend of a celebrity … except I don’t think Tim cares that much about social status.

Chapter Seven: A Change of Team

The next day, Tim has the nerve to try to pretend nothing’s happened, and then when Nicola doesn’t respond to her cheery greeting, says, “What’s up with you? Still sulking?” Lawrie is also Not-Talking to Nicola, so everything’s a bit strained. It all blows up in art class when they’re drawing the play and they realise Miranda has been watching rehearsals. Nicola, worried about her performance as Shepherd Boy, quietly asks Miranda for her opinion, but Lawrie butts in to say Nicola is “pretty awful”. Miranda loses it and it is GLORIOUS:

“The trouble with you is, you’re a spoilt brat … If everything doesn’t go the way she wants it, she yells the place down. Bellow, bellow, bellow. Anyone’d think she was six.”

Miranda also points out that Nicola wanted to be in the netball team just as much as Lawrie wanted to be Shepherd Boy, without making the same fuss, and they’d actually be winning their games if Nicola was in the team. And Miranda blames Tim:

“…if you weren’t always telling her, Lawrie, I mean, how madly brilliant she is, she mightn’t be such an ass.”

But the best bit is when she turns to shy, conflict-averse Esther to back her up and Esther immediately, unequivocally agrees that Lawrie is an ass. This silences even Tim! It’s great.

But poor Esther is otherwise having a miserable time. She’s been forced to take on Nicola’s soloist singing duties in the play, even though she has debilitating stage-fright, and she knows she can’t even run away because she doesn’t have a proper home to run to anymore. It’s a good thing she has Nicola and Miranda as friends, because the adults in her life are being actively harmful.

The netball team loses yet another game and Lawrie injures her leg in gym just before the final game of the term. This presents a moral dilemma, because she was planning on playing brilliantly in the final game and gaining colours:

“…she’d be almost as good as the people in books who played with broken bones and sprained ankles and no one knew till they’d fainted at the end – and she’d always wanted to do that.”

But even Lawrie concedes that with a hurt leg, it’s going to be difficult to play as well as she usually does, let alone better (“People in books must have different types of bones or something”). During an illegally-long hot bath, she contemplates (in a side-long, Lawrie-ish way) the things Miranda said about her and wonders if she, Lawrie, might have been cast as Shepherd Boy if she wasn’t so babyish and spoilt. Then she comes up with a plan. She’ll let Nicola play in her place (instead of Sally, the official sub). This, she decides, is such a nice thing to do for Nick that somehow, as a reward, Lawrie will end up being Shepherd Boy. Also, if they get found out about the netball swap, Nicola will be in so much trouble, she won’t be allowed to be Shepherd Boy, and Lawrie can revel in schadenfreude.

The plan goes surprisingly smoothly the next morning, as they manage to fool Ann, Ginty and Matron. Lawrie stays in bed being Sick-Nicola, while Nicola messes up her hair and goes down to tell the netball team. They all think it’s an excellent idea, and agree not to tell anyone, “specially not Marie Dobson”. Tim needs some convincing and Nicola thinks:

“It was queer and difficult being friends with someone who disliked you so much. At least she supposed they were friends and she supposed it was dislike, though neither seemed quite the right word.”

Let me assist, Nicola. Yes, Tim dislikes you. You’re free to dislike her back. No, you’re not friends. There, sorted.

There are some amusing bits where neat, precise Nicola is forced to be messy and disorganised in order to be a convincing Lawrie. They take the train to the school where they’re playing their netball matches, telling Marie to walk with the Seniors, then ordering her out of their train carriage. (The teachers don’t seem to notice this blatant bullying, which presumably happens at every away-game, so I don’t think Nicola should have any concern about them noticing the twin-swap.)

Now, I don’t even like netball (typical Wing Defence), but this game is pretty exciting. Everyone plays well, especially Nicola – so well that Lois and Janice, watching the game, realise it’s not Lawrie playing. Janice says, “Lois, do have the sense to let it alone. You shouldn’t have got Nicola out in the first place.” Lois hotly denies this and prattles on about prefects having to do their duty, while Janice is coolly amused and dismissive, pointing out that Lawrie will get into just as much trouble as Nicola if Lois decides to report them. When Miss Craven comes over, Janice wickedly says, “Lawrie played particularly well. Didn’t Lawrie play well, Lois?” and Lois reluctantly agrees that Lawrie deserves her colours. I’m liking Janice more and more.

On the way back, Marie manages to squirm into the carriage with the rest of the triumphant team and then gloats that she knows a secret. Except then she finds out that everyone else knew about the twin-swap and didn’t tell her because they knew she’d sneak to Craven or Lois. So Marie bursts into tears, exclaiming it’s not fair that Nicola told everyone about Guides last year. Even though Nicola hasn’t told anyone. Marie is so pathetically awful – it’s completely understandable that the other girls don’t like her. If only a teacher or an older girl would take Marie under her wing and teach her some social skills, then work out what she’s good at and let her have some success and responsibilities in that. Or they could have left her in the B class with her friend Pomona. Instead, they throw her into the netball team, when she can’t play, and ignore it when the others exclude her from everything. At least Nicola realises “we’ll have to be a bit careful … she has feelings same like the rest of you”, although Lawrie “who never really believed anyone but herself had any, remained unconvinced”.

Next, Chapter Eight: As It Turned Out

‘End of Term’, Part Four

Chapter Five: Half-Term at Trennels

There is a lot going on in this chapter. So, first, the Kingscote girls have a Christmas play rehearsal in the Minster, and during a break, Nicola has a chat with Jess Geddes, the nice-but-untalented actress playing the Shepherd Boy. She too thinks the casting is bonkers, especially now it’s being held in the Minster with outsiders coming to watch, saying “I don’t see it’s so very reverent, not to have it done the very best we can.”

Nicola is a bit embarrassed that Jess is talking about religion (it’s bad enough they’re in a church), but excuses it on the grounds of Jess being Scottish, rather than “pagan English” like the rest of them. Then they discover a bird, possibly a falcon, carved into a pillar in an out-of-the-way place and wonder why someone would have carved a presumably non-Biblical bird where no one could see. Nicola ventures that perhaps it was “just for fun” and she contemplates how religion was different in medieval times: “I read once about a jester who turned somersaults in front of a statue of the Virgin because it was the thing he could do best.” Although she’s careful to say ‘thing’ rather than ‘gift’ or ‘offering’ because those words would be “priggish”.

Then half-term arrives. Poor Esther has to stay at school rather than going home to see Daks, because her hopeless mother messed up the dates, but everyone else is going home, even Tim. Rowan, looking very grown-up with lipstick, comes to collect the Marlow sisters, but first Nicola and Sprog meet Dr Herrick, who asks if Sprog can be part of the play, carried by one of the Kings. Nicola thinks this will be lovely for Sprog and also for the Minster, having a hawk inside again, because surely in medieval times, “when people believed properly”, they brought their hawks to church.

Dr Herrick, in a fairly blatant intrusion of Authorial Voice, is amused by her ignorance and corrects her, saying there are people now who “believe properly”, “without reservation”. Nicola later thinks that Dr Herrick and Ann are among these people, but didn’t people talk about “science having made everything different”? Nicola wishes she could ask Giles because he was a sensible person who’d “know what was true and what wasn’t”. (Ha ha, imagine thinking Giles the source of eternal wisdom!)

Meanwhile, Miss Craven has bailed up Rowan to ask what’s going on with Nicola. (She’s not in the netball team, Craven! Because you chose to exclude her!) Rowan and Nicola then realise Evil Lois was behind it, but Nicola makes Rowan promise not to say anything to Miss Craven. Rowan reluctantly agrees, worried that Nicola will end up “like Jan Scott and always passed over”. It turns out there was a “terrific scandal” in Upper Fourth when Jan was told to volunteer for some weeding duties and Jan said if it was voluntary, then she was choosing not to. So she was labelled Uncooperative Type and written off forever (except they made her a prefect, so not really). No wonder Miranda has a crush on Janice.

It is revealed Rowan is having a tough time on the farm, having spent six weeks milking cows and “clamping mangolds”. I had no idea what a mangold was, so I looked it up and it’s mangel-wurzel, a type of beet used to feed livestock. I don’t know why they need clamping, but it sounds like something from Cold Comfort Farm. Next thing we know, Rowan will be pushing people down the well and obsessively counting chicken feathers. In the meantime, she’s driving her sisters home even though she’s too young to have a driving licence (but quite old enough to run a farm, according to her parents), hence the lipstick, in case she gets stopped by a policeman.

The big news is that Grandmother (the French widow/possible Nazi collaborator) is staying till New Year and is making everyone miserable, especially their mother, especially as Mrs Bertie the housekeeper has the flu and Mrs Marlow can’t cook. Also, Grandmother is a devout Catholic, which has somehow escaped their notice till now, and she is demanding to be taken to Mass on Sunday. Nicola doesn’t help matters by getting knocked over by the dog as soon as she walks inside, letting Sprog fly up to the candelabra. Fortunately, Patrick arrives and helps to recapture Sprog and even more fortunately, he turns out to be Catholic. And they hear Mass at his house each Sunday, because the Merrick family are such old, important Catholics! (How come the Catholic Mrs Merrick only has one child, while the only-vaguely-Anglican Mrs Marlow has eight? Maybe poor Mrs Merrick had lots of miscarriages or Patrick had some stillborn siblings? Unless she saw how Patrick was turning out and decided that one child was more than enough?) But Patrick is actually polite and helpful here, so maybe being back at school is doing his character some good.

The other revelation is that Mrs Marlow remarks in passing that she had four brothers who were all killed in the First World War, which is news to Nicola. Does this family ever talk about anything important?! Surely there would have been family photographs or it would have come up somehow in the past thirteen years? Mrs Marlow said her mother was always strict with her and Aunt Molly, but “it was different for the boys, of course”. And Nicola notes that Grandmother is polite to Patrick and is always much nicer to Giles and Peter than to the sisters:

“Perhaps she liked boys better than girls. So, come to that, did Nicola.”

AARRGGH! I know poor Nicola is being brought up by a domineering father and doormat mother, in a family where the girls are expected to sacrifice any hope of a career to make the men’s lives easier, but I really hope Kingscote at least teaches her that girls can be as clever, interesting and worthwhile as boys.

At tea, Lawrie again demonstrates her (limited) understanding of theology, when Grandmother mentions a portrait of Our Lady painted by St Luke. Lawrie is confused as to how a non-existent person can paint another non-existent person (“like saying that a statue of Athene was done by Jupiter”). It turns out Lawrie hasn’t really been listening in church, but anyway, “I never thought I was supposed to think it was real.” Ann says that there’s a Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem so Christ must have existed, but Lawrie makes the completely valid point that “Mount Olympus is a place, too, isn’t it? And you wouldn’t say that proved Zeus was real, would you?” But just as I was thinking this was entirely too logical for Lawrie, she asks whether the Greek gods were real, too.

I laughed helplessly all through this section – Grandmother’s horror, Mrs Marlow’s exasperation, Rowan marvelling at Lawrie’s thinking processes, Nicola and Ginty mortified that people are talking religion at the tea table. But the thing is, I agree with Lawrie. I think it’s a story, too: an illogical but highly influential legend. (I have thought about this issue a bit more deeply than Lawrie, though.)

Anyway, the next day, Nicola takes Patrick to the Minster to show him the falcon carving. Patrick likes the Minster, saying he’d like that one back from the Church of England, along with Winchester and Westminster Abbey. On the way home, they discuss his Catholicism – how the Merricks stayed Catholic, despite one Merrick ancestor being martyred by Elizabeth and another by James I, and how Patrick thinks the Reformation was “the worst thing that ever happened to the English”. He says, “For us … it was the sort of thing the Poles have to put up with from the Communists now – torture and imprisonment and having to hear Mass secretly.” Patrick, it was five hundred years ago, get over it. It’s not as though the Merricks lost their estate and they’re not exactly lacking in power or wealth now, with Patrick’s father in Parliament and Patrick completely free to practice his religion. Patrick also seems to be ignoring all the reasons why English people might have wanted to get rid of a bunch of corrupt priests whose loyalties lay with the Pope rather than the English king, and also that there were plenty of martyred Protestants. But I have an idea that Antonia Forest is firmly on Patrick’s side.

Back at Trennels, Lawrie is ‘helping’ her mother with housework in a most incompetent way and getting further theological instruction from her grandmother. Grandmother’s bedroom is cluttered with Catholic paraphernalia – a crucifix, a candlestick, a little lamp, rosary beads, holy medals, a triptych, figurines of Christ and Mary and St Therese (and I like that Lawrie recognises the rosary beads only because they appear in Little Women). Grandmother attempts to explain their significance:

“Now listen to me, Lawrence. Whether you believe or what you believe is between yourself and God. I have no concern about that. But for a child of your age, going to a good school, to be as ignorant and ill-informed of the most elementary facts of Christianity as you seem to be, is something quite disgraceful.”

This is true – it is important for children to know the central beliefs of all the religions practiced in their region (so they can realise how illogical they all are and become atheists). But the useful thing for Lawrie is that she finally understands the metaphor of Christ as Shepherd, which will come in handy if she manages to infect Jess with the flu and take over the role of Shepherd Boy.

Lawrie would be a giant pain to have as a twin sister, but she really is hilarious in this chapter.

Oh, I forgot to say Nicola told Patrick about Lois Sanger and he wondered if Lois is in complete denial about her lies, or realises she’s a heel, which I was also thinking about. But I’ll write more about that if it comes up in a later chapter.

Next, Chapter Six: A Change of Cast

‘End of Term’, Part Three

Chapter Four: Altogether Unexpected

This is a short but dramatic chapter in which Lois proves to be even more odious than usual. It begins with Miss Craven, Miss Redmond and Lois having a meeting to decide who should be in the Junior netball team. Lois finds some of the tasks of Games Captain tedious but she’s enjoying hanging out with the staff and lording it over younger pupils. Miss Craven assumes Nicola will be Captain and Centre, but Miss Redmond makes a tart remark about Nicola’s self-confidence. Because heavens above, we can’t have a Kingscote girl with self-confidence! This is Lois’s chance to contribute her opinion of Nicola:

“That conversation, overheard and rearranged – was she going to repeat it? She didn’t want to, yet she felt helplessly that she almost certainly would …”

Not only does Lois give in to temptation and repeat her mostly-fictional story about Nicola, she tells an outright lie by saying Nicola’s “turned up late to practices”, plural. Still, it’s not just Lois – Miss Redmond is just as petty, taking her revenge for Nicola turning down her Guides offer: “What that young woman needs, it seems to me, is a really good jolt.”

Miss Craven, who’s also told that Nicola has enough to do already with the Christmas play and her hawk, goes along with it. It’s not really Miss Craven’s fault – she’s been fed misinformation by Lois and Miss Redmond.

Oh, the other thing is that the three of them put hopeless Marie in the team, not because she can play, but because Miss Keith is concerned that Marie is struggling at school and needs a boost of confidence. So, Kingscote girls do need to have self-confidence, just a very specific and limited amount of it. Except I don’t see how putting Marie in a team where she’s going to fail will make her any more popular with the other girls or help her self-confidence.

Poor Nicola finds she’s been left off the team before everyone else, then has to pretend not to mind about it all through breakfast. There’s a small distraction when she’s offered a chance to buy a new pony and the others discuss this. It turns out Miranda not only rides in the holidays, but also skates and fences (“Mummy likes me to have millions of things to do to keep me out from under her feet when she’s got refugee committees”). But then Lawrie, Tim and the others find out about Nicola and are outraged. As Miranda says, “It’s just so – so – so unjust when they do things like this and no one knows what or why or anything.” Janice Scott tactfully changes the subject when she sees Nicola on the verge of tears, then later consoles her: “They do these things from time to time, you know. And there’s rarely any rational explanation.”

I think Nicola may have joined Miranda’s Janice Admiration Society, which seems completely reasonable to me. Apart from being a kind and thoughtful person, Janice is also beautiful, like a “Dresden figurine”, all “glassy, cool, translucent”. Janice is eminently crush-worthy.

The rest of the netball team tries and fails to convince Miss Craven to put Nicola in the team. Jenny Cardigan (who has the best name ever for an English schoolgirl), even proposes they go on strike:

“Just for a moment, the possibility of behaving as if they were characters in a book called, perhaps, ‘That Term at St Faith’s’ seemed not only fabulous, but plausible.”

I know End of Term, despite having the form of a conventional girls’ boarding school book, isn’t really like most of those books, but this struck the wrong note to me – as if Antonia Forest needed to remind us, in rather snobby way, how trashy those books are and how superior her writing is. Her characters often do talk about what “people in books” do and that usually comes across as amusing and astute, but this threw me out of the story for a moment.

Anyway, obviously the girls don’t go on strike (but Miranda does snub Lois when Lois congratulates her, calling Lois a “hammer-toed, pot-bellied, copper-bottomed heel” once Lois is out of earshot). And the netball team goes on to lose their first two games. Well, that’s what happens when you choose players on the basis of ill-informed character judgments, rather than ball-throwing skills.

Next, Chapter Five: Half-Term at Trennels