Wednesday, June 04, 2008

book review - The Girls of Slender means

In the Ballad of Peckham Rye Muriel Spark uses an outlandish character to act as a provocative catalyst to bring out sides of people that are otherwise buried. In The Girls of Slender Means it is the act of a bomb going off that has the same impact on one character in particular.

The title refers to a group of girls that are living in a women’s club that is a hostel with the group of early twenty something’s living on the top floor. The scene is set in a war torn London with the club standing despite bomb damage around and the scars of the blitz and the war still in evidence all around.

The girls in the club are all living with next to nothing and making do – slender means – sharing dresses and borrowing things from each other to make the best of it. One thing they seem to try to have an influence over is the men who come into the club and Nicholas appears on the scene and sleeps with the most attractive but stirs passions in some of the others.

As a result of several flashbacks we know that Nicholas dies at the hands of some natives he was trying to convert as a missionary. How does he get there from the situation of a bored poet come anarchist celebrating the Attlee government success after the war?

The turning point it watching horrified through a window while the elocution teacher Joanna, who he has started to fixate on, chants clearly psalms before she meets her death in the collapsing house after a bomb, long thought to be in the garden by one of the owners of the club, finally detonates.

His death also sparks off memories for one of the girls in the group who had initially met Nicholas and tried to help him get published. She tracks down the truth of his demise and puts the last pieces in the jigsaw.

In some respects this could be taken as a religious message about the power of faith over death but there is also something else about the death signifying the end of innocence. The irony is that this book is set in 1945 when presumably any innocence has long since gone after the bitter years of war. But the girls of slender means seem to have drifted through the war and the fact their club is still standing is a sign that not much has altered.

One of the other telling moments is when on VJ day Nicholas witnesses in horror a man stabbing a woman in the crows and then slipping away without a care in the world. His café anarchism is challenged and found wanting and in the end inspired it seems by a vicar’s daughter he too sets out to find something that he is happy to die for.

A more dynamic result compared to Ballad of Peckham Rye comes as a result of the twist and the moment of horror with the fire and the death. Putting this alongside Evelyn Waugh and Anthony Powell it provides another interpretation on wartime London.

Version read – Penguin paperback

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