Reviews: Becoming English and Black Orchids

By Madeleine Kingsley, June 4, 2009
Gillian Slovo — great narrative gift

Gillian Slovo — great narrative gift

Becoming English
By Eva Tucker
Starhaven, £9

Black Orchids
By Gillian Slovo
Virago, £7.99

‘The past”, as LP Hartley movingly wrote, “is another country”. For Eva Tucker and Gillian Slovo, that “otherness” was more than mere metaphor. Uprooted from their countries of birth (Tucker, early, from Germany; Slovo, famously, from South Africa), both were transplanted here to a shock reality that continues to imbue their writing.

Tucker’s novella, Becoming English, is a lightly veiled, refugee memoir of half-Jewish Laura, whose timely flight from Hitler’s Berlin brings her into an England of pilchards, snapdragons and a discomfiting “poor mite” identity.

While her heavily-accented “muzzer”, Ruth, makes menial shift and too many London men friends, Laura flourishes in the Quaker care of three elderly country spinsters and an enlightened boarding school.

Embracing the well-regulated order of wartime England comes easily enough to her: card games and copies of Ivanhoe create a kindly contrast to news from Theresienstadt and Laura’s brief encounter with frumkeit in Stamford Hill.

Prejudice (“You Jerry!”; “I suppose Germans don’t catch German measles”) is swallowed and survived. A good, clever student, Laura will come of age with Laurence Olivier’s Lear and Henry Treece poems hitting Charing Cross Road. Her first job, typesetting for a small intellectual journal, conjures the smell of printer’s ink; her romance with two best friends is an avant-garde, Anglicised variation on Jules et Jim.

Throughout the book, a spiky ambivalence is evident between Laura and her mother. The question left intriguingly open is what their tensions owe to temperament alone, and what to the cultural foreign-ness that Ruth, understandably enough, retains as Laura, for belonging’s sake, lets go. I loved this book for what any 1930s immigrant (or child of same) will recognise as utterly authentic recall — a rich, unerring, girl’s-eye view of the times, portrayed in charmingly crafted prose.

Slovo’s Black Orchids is a poignant though fast-moving epic flowing from the clash of cultural opposites. The theme is universal, though the drama is passionately particular.

This is a case of “beware that which you most desire” for Evelyn, the blonde and beautiful daughter of a cash-strapped ex-pat widow returning home from Ceylon.

It is 1946 and independence in her adopted country looms. Evelyn must exchange heat, dust and coconut flowers for a Blighty she has never seen.

Rejecting a safe proposal from a plodding civil servant, she is magnetised by Emil, a rich, privileged motorcycling Sinhalese. An impulsive, rule-breaking pair, they wed against the advice of their elders and set out for England, where Emil prospers and Evelyn glitters in her extravagant house with its fat Frigidaire and Louis Quinze chairs.

But each, it emerges, has married to show off the other and perhaps their shared social daring. Instant attraction gives way to simmering disillusion as Evelyn reverts to Anglo-Saxon type. She is stung, but also destructively embarrassed, by prejudice directed at both husband and boarding-school son.

She is relieved to bear a light-skinned daughter and wills her spouse to tone down his exotic flamboyance. But the more she conforms, the more he defies her country-folk’s crass snobbery.

Slovo paints a painful reminder of the not-so-subtly racist 1950s. But her great narrative gift lies in tracking how Evelyn and her British-born children are rendered outsiders by association, how they are thus strengthened or undone, and how families could — and still can — be fissured by the difference that once delighted.

Last updated: 3:16pm, February 18 2011