Tuesday, 3 August 2021

What I'm reading: Thrilling evocation of 1950s Britain



Set in the 1950s, this is the story of the tumultuous girlhood of Harmony, known as ‘Harry’, daughter of Ellen Loveridge and her Gypsy husband Sam, whose courtship and marriage Katie Hutton brought to us in last year’s The Gypsy Bride. Sam is the foreman on a hop farm in Kent, where Harry is violently assaulted one summer in her teens. Made of strong stuff like her mother, Harry puts this outrage behind her and fulfils her promising academic career with a scholarship to Nottingham University, where she is courted by two men, one a glamorous French teacher, the other a factory hand with aspirations of his own.

Like its predecessor, The Gypsy’s Daughter brings strong echoes of Thomas Hardy and even – with its Nottinghamshire miners who talk in dialect – of D.H. Lawrence, no less. The family saga morphs into high drama when Harry attracts what we now call a stalker, and there is a powerful climactic chapter in the Old Bailey. Like Melvyn Bragg, Katie Hutton convincingly and vividly brings the ‘classic’ literary traditions of bygone times into the postwar era, with its huge change in fashion and customs and values. Her characters – and the events that shape their lives – tug at your heartstrings. This is an immensely satisfying read.

Thursday, 29 July 2021

What I'm reading: Echoes of Le Carré

Charles Cumming: BOX 88

BOX 88 is an ultra-secret Anglo-American spy agency that operates beyond the remit of MI6 and the CIA. In 1989 at the age of 18 Lachlan Kite was recruited because his best friend’s father was hosting an Iranian power-broker suspected of links to those behind the Lockerbie bombing. Kite and his pal were guests at the villa in France where the Iranian would be staying. BOX 88 gave the teenager a crash course in espionage tradecraft: dead-letter boxes and hidden microphones.

In 2020 Kite is kidnapped and his pregnant wife taken hostage by another group of Iranians who want to know the truth about the events of that summer in France. Kite and Isobel’s lives will depend on his ability to dissimulate.

Not for the first time Charles Cumming sets his sights on John Le CarrĂ© territory: the “nitty-gritty” of intelligence work that relies on deception more than on Jason Bourne heroics. The bulk of this 480-page novel consists of conversations in which Kite pretends to be just a horny schoolboy (1989) and an outraged ordinary citizen (2020). Only towards the end do a few bullets fly.

This is surely much closer to the real secret world than a James Bond caper or a Mission Impossible. BOX 88 is a tense read, very well crafted. Mr Cumming is definitely going places!