Today is a bit of a landmark day: my Mum died six months ago. I know that is the most morbid and strange start to a book review ever, but this book was the last one she ever started, and she never got to finish it. So, in commemoration, I decided to read and review it on her behalf.
“Long ago in 1945, all the nice people in England were poor, allowing for exceptions.”
So begins The Girls of Slender Means. Mostly set between VE Day and VJ Day in the summer of 1945, the book focuses on a group of young women living in Kensington at The May of Teck Club, a place with the express purpose of providing somewhere for young women to live independently of their families so they may follow one occupation or another in London. Much like the writing with which Muriel Spark realises these characters, this central group of girls outwardly appears frivolous and gay, while inwardly feeling wracked by secret worries and insecurities as they try to forge their own identities in an ever-changing and uncertain post-war London.
Also woven throughout the story is a frame narrative, set 18 years later, in which one character keeps contacting other girls from the Club to compile information on the death of a mutual friend. The book flows fairly gracefully between narratives, and this framing device instils the novel with a deep-rooted foreboding atmosphere. Even from it’s opening pages, death rears its head in the story, which is wonderfully juxtaposed by the apparent lightness with which the girls themselves are presented.
One of Spark’s major talents is the economical yet hugely communicative way she introduces each character, something which is vital in a novel of this size. It’s difficult to summarise without quoting vast chunks of text, but I will say this: Joanna Childe, in particular, is more engagingly and clearly communicated to the reader in the space of two-and-a-half pages than many authors manage to introduce a main character in twenty, and other main characters are introduced in similarly brilliant fashion. This level of clarity and punctuality extends further than simple character introductions, though. Every character feels real and personable (especially given Spark’s extraordinary gift for dialogue), and every situation feels immediate and absorbingly important, much as it would for the characters.
This book seems to effortlessly capture the period in which it’s set, and the feeling of growing up in a world on the cusp of change. The writing was consistently hilarious and the characters were wonderful to spend time with, and I honestly can’t wait to read more of Spark’s work soon. I’m glad this was the last book Mum read, as it imbues a special novel with wonderful personal significance. In truth, I don’t think anything sums up the novel quite as well as this quote from midway through the opening chapter:
“As they realised themselves in varying degrees, few people alive at the time were more delightful, more ingenious, more movingly lovely, and, as it might happen, more savage, than the girls of slender means.”