Long ago in 1945 all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.
A first line that ranks alongside those in I Capture the Castle, Pride and Prejudice and The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley, it plunges you straight into the novella and also the undercurrents in Muriel Spark’s writing.
There is always something more going on than what is said in The Girls of Slender Means (even the title is multi-layered and not wholly kind) and Spark embraces this unease and makes it overt by having the main characters try to trace why a man they once knew became a monk and how he came to die some years later in Haiti.
Morality, immorality, memory, young love, bittersweet nostalgia, conviction and redemption are all pursued through the story in deceptively simple writing that links The Girls of Slender Means with The Great Gatsby and The Go-Between.
Perhaps the vastness of these themes, as well as the subtleties of the writing, are why no book cover I’ve seen has quite nailed it and why the recent Folio edition played it safe with narrative illustrations.
Every line reveals Spark’s grip on her craft. The poetry quoted by Joanna that has resonances when first read, and more horrifyingly when re-read, the restrained parody of the foundation of the May of Teck club, the fake Schiaparelli design and the bohemian party in Hampstead and a debate on truth, faith and conviction that could belong in the first pages of Persuasion.
Most skilful of all is how time, like in the best films, moves at different paces simultaneously within itself. It is static: between two armistices. It is crumbling: from war to peace. It is far away: rationing becomes a thing to be explained in the lifetime of the curator. It is other: when Nicholas stands outside of it, as martyr or as murder witness. It is personal, in memory. It is divided within itself, as are the different “wartime” generations within the club. It is infinite and squeezed into 192 pages.
As soon as I had finished it, I read it straight through again. Not a cosy read, but not abrasive either, it makes you think.
(images: Kensington photo by me, May 2016 from where my bookclub met and near the May of Teck; Folio and Penguin images from the publishers’ websites for current editions and Abebooks for the 1990s imprint)