Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Flight of the Maidens (Jane Gardam)

  --The blurb--
"This [...] novel describes the post-war summer of 1946 - and follows the growing-up of three young women in the months between leaving school and taking up their scholarships at university. Una Vane, whose widowed mother runs a hairdressing salon in her front room ('Maison Vane Glory - Where Permanent Waves are Permanent'), goes bicycling with Ray, the boy who delivers the fish and milk. Hetty Fallowes struggles to become independent of her possessive, loving, tactless mother. And Lieselotte Klein, who had arrived in 1939 on a train from Hamburg, uncovers tragedy in the past and magic in the present."

--The review--
With today's teens glued to their smartphones and with more material privilege (in many cases) than their parents had, it can be difficult to remind oneself at times that in fact not everything has changed so drastically for present-day youths. With students in their final year of school now in the thick of university applications and interviews, and wondering what to do with the rest of their lives, their emotional locus is, in many ways, in much the same place as the female protagonists of Jane Gardam's 2000 novel, The Flight of the Maidens, which sees seventeen-year-olds Una, Hetty and Lieselotte making pivotal choices as they stand on the cusp of adulthood.

Through these characters, Gardam puts paid to the idea that is perhaps held by many young people today: that all teens in the immediately post-war years were obedient, non-rebellious and totally responsible. While the girls are stoic in the face of adversity, they are also feisty, engage in passionate relationships, and disagree vehemently with their parents. This is all set against the backdrop of the Second World War's consequences on everyday people, but it is the protagonists, not the historical context, that take centre stage, making the teens' exploits relevant to today's readers. 

Enhancing all of this are Gardam's witty turns of phrase and the very human characteristics of the personages inhabiting The Flight of the Maidens. In all of these characters we recognise less-than-pretty aspects of ourselves or of our acquaintances, and we are encouraged by turns both to celebrate and to change these attributes. By placing our faults as human beings under the microscope, Gardam arguably creates the novel's most important message: of being kind to others, as we have no idea what they are going through, or of what will happen to all of us next. This applies perhaps most significantly and equally to Lieselotte and to Hetty's mother.

This could suggest that Gardam's main reason for writing is didacticism, but the novel's sheer readability and lack of a nagging tone implies that the primary purpose is escapism and nostalgia. In indulging in Una, Hetty and Lieselotte's various exploits, we are reminded of ourselves and of how crucial a time being seventeen is. Light yet soul-searching, The Flight of the Maidens is therefore essential bedtime reading not just for today's seventeen-year-old girls but also those who are still seventeen at heart.

other novels by Jane Gardam*
Bilgewater (1977)
God on the Rocks (1978)
Crusoe's Daughter (1985)
The Queen of the Tambourine (1991)
Black Woolly Pony (1993)
Faith Fox (1996)
Old Filth (2004)
The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009)
Last Friends (2013)

*Jane Gardam has also written a number of short story collections, as well as books for children.  

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