“Splendid Non-Conformity”: Lissa Evans, Old Baggage

baggage‘I have no party affiliation, merely the aim of encouraging the girls to take their rightful places in the modern world. Knowledge, confidence, ready laughter and a strong overarm throw will equip them for many arenas.’

She was watching the teams as she spoke: why on earth Jacko had chosen to clothe the League in garments the colour of a municipal drainpipe was quite beyond her. By contrast, the Amazons, aligning themselves for a photograph, were a frieze of splendid non-conformity.

I enjoyed Old Baggage quite a bit. It is tighter and swifter than Their Finest, its focus and, I would say, its strength much more the depiction of character than the construction of plot. In fact, overall I liked the ‘old baggage’ herself, Mattie Simpkin, better than Old Baggage. She is splendid: unapologetically unconventional, proud of her suffragist past and determined not just to continue living up to her principles but to find some way to pass them on to a new generation already losing the sense of urgency that drove Mattie and her colleagues to violence and personal sacrifice in the fight for equality. Her supporting cast is good too, especially her close companion Florrie, nicknamed ‘The Flea,’ and her protege Ida, a smart working-class girl who joins the girls’ club Mattie establishes to promote mental and physical agility, called with apt grandiosity ‘The Amazons.’

old-baggageEvans does a wonderful job delineating Mattie’s world, from its domestic apparatus to its politics. The novel takes place mostly in 1928 and 1929, and while like Mattie herself this world is full of energy and change, it is also shot through with pathos from the aftereffects and memories of the war, in which Mattie’s brother Angus was terribly injured:

Shrapnel had sheared away a triangle of Angus’s skull and a wedge of brain matter beneath: a mortal wound that had nonetheless taken almost two years to kill him. He had lost his speech and his ability to walk, and most of his sight, but his charm had remained intact …

Like the war, the militant suffrage movement is now part of Mattie’s past, though both are also (as the title hints) baggage she cannot leave behind. The novel’s central question is what Mattie can and should be doing in the present–who she is now that the causes she fought for have (more or less) been won. This personal question merges with political ones as Mattie becomes increasingly aware that a new force is rising that threatens those hard-won victories: fascism. As her Amazons train, so too does the Empire Youth League; the two organizations neatly embody two profoundly opposed sets of value, one ruthlessly regimented, the other vigorous, wayward, and unruly, like freedom itself.

baggage-2This is all really good material, and the novel is well told start to finish, but my initial enthusiasm was somewhat deflated by the way its story eventually played out. Mattie compromises her own mission for reasons that seemed to me both out of character and insufficiently dramatic to create a genuine crisis of either conscience or story. The potential for significant conflict between the youth organizations, their leaders, and (most importantly) the larger political stakes they represent was not realized–perhaps because it would have been incompatible with the novel’s overall lightness of tone and touch–and the novel’s final twist not only seemed weirdly random but was a disappointing relegation of Mattie’s fighting spirit to a form of caretaking retirement. Perhaps the ending was meant to signal that the torch has finally been passed: that the best thing Mattie can do for the next generation of activists, or for the women (such as Ida) who are making new lives based on their achievements, is to free them from domestic responsibilities–to look after their baggage?–so that they can carry on. Still, I thought Mattie deserved better, though I suppose I should not underestimate the radicalism of the doctorate she earns. And as she says, quoting its subject, “All things are difficult before they are easy”: Mattie’s fighting life, which has certainly been difficult, has maybe earned her a future a bit out of the fray, away from the front lines of what we know too well would be an ongoing war.

Recent Reading: War Stories

Over the past week I read two books about World War II, but that’s as much as they have in common. In fact, they are about such different parts of the war, and they treat their subject so differently, that it makes almost no sense to consider them together, except that I read them one after the other!

The first was Lissa Evans’s Their Finest (which I learned from Dorian’s post was originally called Their Finest Hour and a Half, which makes much more sense!). I liked this novel a lot: it is brisk, wry, witty, and self-aware, especially about the will to create a heroic myth out of circumstances that in reality are an uneven mixture of banality, accident, and tragedy. The Blitz is pretty familiar fictional (and historical) territory–I think the best fictional treatment of it I’ve read is in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, which is so good in those parts that I wished she had given up on the novel’s big gimmick and just written the convincing and heartrending book about the Blitz that she is clearly capable of. On the other hand, a convincing and straightforward story (you know, the kind that gets called “old-fashioned”) is harder to pull off than it sounds, and one thing Life After Life and Their Finest have in common is breaking up that potential narrative into parts that diffuse the risk. If the ingenuity comes at a cost, it’s one that Evans at least is clearly paying deliberately as she resists the pull of the romanticizing and potentially dangerous nostalgia with which the Blitz is now so often treated.

Dorian describes Their Finest as “perfect light reading” and then goes on to explain with his usual astute clarity how it is also about the way “hard work underlies effortlessness.” His post is really good and thorough, so if you want more detail about Evans’s novel I recommend you pop over and read it. I think in the end he admires Their Finest more than I did, but I certainly enjoyed it a lot, and I appreciate that Dorian passed his copy on to me when we had the pleasure of meeting in person in Halifax last week! I will definitely look for Evans’s other books.

I can’t exactly say that I enjoyed Michael Kaan’s The Water Beetles, which follows a young Chinese boy’s experiences after the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong in 1941. Much of the novel is dedicated to literal and often harrowing details of the dirt and pain and suffering and inhumanity Chung-Man endures, first as a refugee from and then as a prisoner of the Japanese forces. The worst of many horrors is the forced “evacuation” of a hospital to make way for Japanese soldiers who have been wounded:

They began shooting the patients. Despite all the gunfire we’d heard over the past several months, Leuk and I started at the first shot. On the top floor a window opened, and the shouting became much clearer as all the windows banged violently open. It was like the rising of a curtain at the theatre.

An old man with a bandaged head appeared suddenly in a window in a tall-backed wheelchair. One of his hands was raised and waving strangely. He lunged forward as the soldier behind him tipped his chair. The old man plummeted to the gravel below. . . . The soldiers disgorged the sick and mutilated into the air, as though unloading bags off a truck.

Kaan’s flat but relentless prose effectively matches the grim endurance necessary to persist and survive in the face of so much brutality.

The war story in The Water Beetles is interspersed with details about Chung-Man’s more recent life: the novel is as much about the lingering effects of his childhood trauma as it is about the war itself. Identity and continuity are recurrent themes: how is it possible to be the same person we once were when so much separates now and then, and what connects us to that former self? For Chung-Man, it’s memories, and family, and also relics such as the tarnished gold belt buckle that during the war is both a secret resource to be hoarded and a fraught link between his past and the future he hardly dares imagine. After the war, the buckle becomes symbolically suggestive: beneath its blackened surface the gold has endured, just as Chung-Man has survived and made something new of his life. Though the old pain and loss remain a part of him, they have not defined him, and this allows a note of hope to soften the novel’s impact.